Ruston school sues state, claims it should be allowed in voucher program

A church-affiliated school in north Louisiana that was booted from the state’s voucher program in June after auditors said they uncovered problems is fighting back and suing the state Department of Education.

Ruston-based New Living Word School, which was established by New Living Word Ministries, claims it was discriminated against and is entitled to damages. The school is predominantly black.

“Defendants singled out NLWS and treated NLWS differently under the law than similarly situated schools participating in the Scholarship Program simply on account of its religious affiliation and/or the race of its officers and the racial composition of its student body,” the school’s lawsuit alleges.

The school also contends it was defamed by state Superintendent of Education John White and is entitled to damages. White also is a named defendant in the suit.

“White’s unprivileged statements to the media regarding NLWS’ removal from the Scholarship Program for ‘gross fiscal irresponsibility’ were false, made in bad faith, negligent on his part, and resulted in damages suffered by NLWS,” the suit, filed Monday at state district court in Baton Rouge, alleges.

Education Department spokeswoman Anna Gatlin said Wednesday that the agency could not comment on the pending litigation.

New Living Word School was found to be charging voucher students higher tuition and fees, which is a violation of state rules. The school owes the state about $395,000, state school leaders have said. That figure represents the difference between what was charged voucher students compared with what other students were required to pay.

Vouchers are financial aid for some students to attend private and parochial schools.

Postlethwaite & Netterville, the Baton Rouge accounting firm that did the review, said school leaders claimed that nonvoucher students paid much of their tuition and fees through in-kind goods and services. But auditors said there is nothing in state rules that allows such payments in determining whether all students are charged the same.

New Living Word School’s suit contends the rules do not disallow such payments either, and state education officials never told the school it could not use in-kind contributions to determine the cost of tuition for its nonscholarship students.

“Because the regulations do not exclude the use of in-kind contributions in determining the cost of tuition for non-scholarship students ... NLWS placed a fair market value on the goods and services it received to determine the cost of tuition,” the suit states.

White’s contention that the school’s actions were indicative of gross fiscal irresponsibility “is based solely on NLWS’ receipt and use of in-kind contributions to offset the cost of tuition for its nonscholarship students,” the suit claims.

White has said New Living Word School officials inflated the value of the in-kind donations, including rental space.

Last year, White was grilled by state lawmakers after a news story disclosed that New Living Word School stood to collect $2.7 million in state school dollars if all of its requested 315 students were approved. Enrollment was 122 at the time. State educators later decided the school could accept 165 voucher students.

The suit says 93 voucher students were enrolled for the 2012-13 school year.

Voucher supporters say they offer students and parents a way out of failing classrooms. Critics contend the assistance drains dollars from hard-pressed traditional public schools, and that the quality of the voucher schools is uneven at best.

The suit has been assigned to state District Judge Kay Bates.