Challenge to BEP funding stands (but not as a class action)

A Nashville judge ruled Friday that seven Southeast Tennessee school districts can proceed with their lawsuit over state funding of public education, reports the Times-Free Press.

“I am respectfully denying the [state’s] motion to dismiss,” Chancellor Claudia C. Bonnyman said after hearing nearly 90 minutes of arguments from state Deputy Attorney General Kevin Steiling and Hamilton County Board of Education attorney Scott Bennett.

But the state wrested one victory out of the hearing when Bonnyman denied Hamilton County’s motion for class-action status in the lawsuit over the state’s Basic Education Program funding formula.

If granted, the motion would have brought all 141 school systems into the lawsuit.

Even so, Friday’s ruling opens the latest chapter in a nearly 30-year legal struggle over state support of public education.

Small school systems won three cases in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, charging that state funding was not equitable among districts.

The new suit questions whether the BEP formula is adequate given what the counties call insufficient state support.

In effect, Hamilton, Bradley, Polk, McMinn, Grundy, Marion and Coffee counties argue state funding must rise before the pie can be divided equitably. If the districts win in court, Tennessee government could easily be required to spend at least a half-billion dollars more each year to make things right.

“I’m not surprised that she denied the motion to dismiss,” said Bennett, attorney for the six systems.

“The law on this issue is very clear,” he added. The latest claim “is simply a continuation” of the earlier struggle.

…In the midst of the court discussion over the class-action issue, attorney and former state senator Roy Herron asked to speak on behalf of the 80 small school systems in the original funding suit.
Herron said the systems aren’t interested in joining the new suit now; they’re waiting to see what Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the GOP-led General Assembly do on K-12 funding in Haslam’s proposed budget. He also didn’t rule out the systems filing their own lawsuit.

Shelby County, Tennessee’s largest school system, filed a separate suit, saying its huge numbers of low-income children make its situation unique. The Tennessean reported Williamson County, one of Tennessee’s wealthiest, may be looking at a lawsuit.

The BEP provides billions of dollars to local systems, which add to the pot based on their ability to pay. Haslam put nearly $250 million in new money into the funding formula of his proposed 2016-2017 budget.

But Haslam also wants to eliminate an equalization provision in the formula that favors urban systems like Hamilton County’s.

Steiling, the deputy attorney general, argued at the hearing against the suit’s four basic claims.

One is that the state is failing its duty under the Tennessee Constitution to “provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”

“The small schools cases really don’t provide a lot of support for the adequacy of funding,” Steiling said, suggesting the claim would stake new legal ground because the Tennessee Supreme Court steered clear of the adequacy issue in its 1990s and early 2000s rulings on in those cases.

The “facts don’t support that level of constitutional funding,” Steiling added.

He questioned claims that the current formula and funding amounts violate equal protection rights, run afoul of state law on funding adequacy and constitute unfunded mandates on local systems.