Iberville files charter school funding lawsuit

The Iberville Parish School Board has asked a state district court judge to declare unconstitutional the allocation of state and dedicated local tax dollars to independently run charter schools.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, which the board had authorized last month, lawyers assert that $4 million from the state’s school funding program has been unfairly diverted away from the school system to a recently opened charter school in Plaquemine and another charter in Baton Rouge.

The School Board argues that the shift of funds to charter schools threatens the school system’s financial stability and encroaches on the board’s authority to run the schools.

The board is asking the court for a permanent injunction that would prohibit the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Louisiana Education Department from allocating any additional state and local tax revenue to charter schools.

State Superintendent of Education John White responded to the lawsuit’s filing Wednesday by referring to it as a money grab by the School Board and an attempt to violate the civil rights of parents who choose to send their kids to charter schools.

Michael Fontham, one of the attorneys representing the Iberville school district, said Wednesday that the board intends to file a petition for a preliminary injunction soon that would require a court hearing on the matter within 10 days of its filing.

The School Board hopes to recoup more than $330,000 in state funds and an additional $3.7 million in dedicated local tax revenue that lawyers claim the board lost so far this year as a result of students attending Iberville Charter Academy in Plaquemine and the South Baton Rouge Charter Academy in East Baton Rouge Parish, according to the petition.

The lawsuit, filed at the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, argues that the expenditure of money from the state’s Minimum Foundation Program, the formula that guides public school financing, is restricted to being spent only on city and parish-run school systems. Charter schools, unlike other public schools, are run by independent boards without involvement of the local school district.

Both schools are Type 2 charters run by Florida-based Charter Schools USA, a for-profit school management company. Type 2 charters are often authorized not by the local parish, but by the state education board. They can draw students from across the state.

In August 2013, BESE authorized the South Louisiana Charter Foundation, through a partnership with Charter Schools USA, to launch up to two Type 2 charter schools in school districts in the Baton Rouge area that had been graded D or F in the annual district performance report issued by the Education Department.

At the time, the Iberville School District had a D grade.

White said charter school students have a constitutional right to MFP funding since charters are still labeled public schools under state law.

“What’s motivating the lawsuit is money and the School Board wants more of that,” White said. “I understand that, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of a parent’s right to choose or statewide taxpayers. When a kid attends a charter school, they (the School Board) want the statewide taxpayers to pick up the entire tab.”

White argued the lawsuit’s claim that BESE is allocating voter-approved tax dollars to fund charter schools is imprecise.

“The state cannot control local dollars going to non-school board schools,” he said. “Instead we fund the charter schools with all state dollars and fund the districts a little bit less when one of their kids go to a charter school.”

BESE spokesman Kevin Calbert said Wednesday the board would not comment on pending legal matters.

In the 31-page petition to the court, lawyers argued that the diversion of money away from the School Board is “highly discriminatory and inequitable.”

The lawsuit goes on to call BESE’s funding of Type 2 charters an “improper exercise” of control over the School Board that undermines the board’s discretion to spend local revenue in the best interests of all the students.

The lawsuit also highlights many of Iberville Parish school officials’ gripes with the new Plaquemine charter school, like its ability to lock up MFP funding through enrollment projections instead of actual student counts.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.