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Louisiana School Funding Lawsuit Filed and Constitutional Amendment Urged

Advocates in Louisiana have initiated a two-pronged effort to reform the state's education finance system. On December 5, 2003, a parent, taxpayers, and a group of school boards filed suit against the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and its members, alleging that BESE's omission of capital funding from the state's education funding formula violates the state constitution's education article. At the same time, according to plaintiffs' attorney Carey Thompson Jones, the school boards asked the Legislature to amend the constitution "by raising the ceiling on the local ‘constitutional tax'." The higher millage limit would increase local revenues and enable school boards to raise personnel salaries and benefits.

Jones v. BESE

The Petitions to the 19th Judicial District Court, in Jones v. BESE, name the BESE and its members as defendants because the state constitution requires the BESE to develop and adopt annually a formula to determine the cost of a "minimum foundation program" of education in all public elementary and secondary schools and to allocate the funds equitably ("the MFP Formula"). Plaintiffs claim that school facilities are a component of a minimum foundation program and, therefore, omission of capital costs violates the BESE's requirement to determine the MFP cost, causes inequitable distribution of MFP funding, and denies equal protection to taxpayers and to public school students. Plaintiffs ask the court to order defendants to include capital costs in the MFP formula for determining and distributing state funds.

However, as reported in The Times-Picayune, January 2, 2004, the chair of the Louisiana House Education Committee indicated that, instead of seeking state funding, the suing Boards should ask local voters to approve higher local taxes to cover the costs of new schools. The same article, by Matthew Brown, summarized some of the school finance statistics for Louisiana's 66 school districts:

49 percent of education revenues comes from the state, 39 percent from local coffers and 12 percent from the federal government
last year schools spent $354 million on construction and site acquisition
an estimated $2.52 billion in school funding will be distributed by the state this year.

Proposed Constitutional Tax Amendment

In justifying the request to the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment, the superintendent of the Livingston Parish School District, one of the plaintiff districts, explained that the BESE has asked teachers and students to be accountable and that they are making progress. But, he said that the education community is asking the Legislature "to give us the tools that we need to succeed [by giving] public education the means to bring our students to the next level."

One of 12 States Providing No Facilities Funding

According to the Association of School Business Officials, as of December 2000, Louisiana was one of only 12 states providing no direct state-level support for school construction project costs.

Prepared by Molly A. Hunter, January 9, 2004