Iberville plans suit challenging charter school funding

School board members and local education officials across the state have grumbled for years that charter schools divert money from public school systems to independently run institutions that compete with them for the best students with the most engaged parents.

Now many officials in the Baton Rouge area are watching closely as Iberville Parish school officials launch what is believed to be Louisiana’s first legal challenge by a school board against charters, arguing that the state Department of Education’s mandate to funnel roughly $5 million in school funding to Iberville Charter Academy in Plaquemine amounts to a hijacking of dedicated state dollars and local tax revenue that rightfully belong to the parish school system.

The lawsuit, expected to be filed this week, sets Iberville in opposition to state Department of Education leaders, who have touted the growth of charter schools in Louisiana as key to improving the quality of public education by giving students in low-performing districts choice of where they go to school.

The Iberville lawsuit takes aim at a Type 2 charter school, a subset of charters that are particularly frustrating to local education leaders because they are approved not by a parish school board, but by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. These schools are required to accept students from anywhere in the state, but most of the Iberville school’s students live in the parish.

Approximately 18 percent, or 25 out of 138, of the charter schools in Louisiana are Type 2 charters, according to the Education Department. Neither spokesman with the Education Department or BESE would comment because it is a pending legal matter.

But Leslie Jacobs, a former BESE member and longtime charter supporter, said local school officials’ critiques ignore what she considers a vital role for these schools to play in improving public education. She pointed to the success some charters have had since Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where almost all the schools are now independently run.

“(School boards) keep saying they should not be taking our money because these are not public schools, but they are public school students (and) the local tax dollars approved by the public were approved for public school students,” she said.

Even before it is filed, the lawsuit has piqued the interest of education leaders in other parishes.

In Lafayette Parish, about $11.9 million from the board’s budget will follow students who are now attending any of the three new Type 2 charter schools in the district. Two of those schools, like the one in Iberville, are run by Charter Schools USA, a Florida-based for-profit school management company.

Lafayette Parish School Board President Hunter Beasley said Friday he plans to speak to the board’s attorney about the Iberville Parish lawsuit.

“I’ll need to have a discussion with our attorneys to see if it’s something that Lafayette should pursue,” he said. “It merits discussion and looking into.”

Baton Rouge attorney Bob Hammonds also said he’s curious to see how Iberville’s attorneys will attack the issue in their petition to the court.

Hammonds, the lawyer for a number of school boards, said many districts are interested in Iberville’s lawsuit because they didn’t have moxie to do it themselves.

“Unfortunately, this type of litigation is very complex, expensive and they were afraid of retaliation from the state,” he said. “There’s that saying that the state can find another place to cut off the water.”

The Iberville Charter Academy has been a touchy subject for parish school officials ever since the charter was approved by the state in August 2013. At that time, Iberville Parish’s schools had a collective D label, based largely on student performance scores. But just a couple months later, new scores were released, showing Iberville students had improved enough to make the district a C system. In a C district, charter applicants must first seek approval from the local board before trying to go to the state.

Officials also complain that the charter has been allowed to siphon off per-pupil funding based solely on enrollment projections, not how many students are actually enrolled. So, while the district estimates it is losing $3.8 million in local tax dollars based on the projected size of 376 students from Iberville, the school opened Aug. 11 with an actual enrollment of 334 students. The vast majority of those students are likely from Iberville, but some could commute from other parishes.

Like another recent legal challenge to the state’s school voucher program, the crux of this lawsuit will focus on the limitations surrounding the Minimum Foundation Program, the constitutionally enshrined $3.5 billion pot of money divvied up each year for public schools.

Michael Fontham, one of the attorneys representing the Iberville school district, said the lawsuit will argue it is simply not permissible to funnel MFP dollars from school systems to charters.

“This is just a hijacking of public funds for semipublic schools that are operated for benefit of private entities,” Fontham said. “This is an effort to undermine public schools by putting these (charters) in rich parishes where they can make a lot of money off the local and state allocations of revenue.”

Because charter schools operate independently of existing public school systems, Fontham argues BESE and the Education Department have violated the provision in the state’s constitution that specifically outlines how MFP funding is collected from the state and local governments and disbursed to school districts. Fontham is pointing particularly to language in the constitution that outlines that the money must be “equitably allocated to parish and city school systems.”

Iberville has a relatively high per-pupil MFP allotment. Fontham said the school system should be receiving approximately $13,500 — $10,000 in local tax revenue and about $3,500 in state funding — in MFP funding for each student. Originally, Type 2 charter schools did not receive the local share of the MFP spending, which was instead made up by the state. But the Legislature changed that in 2008.

One question that is still unclear is whether the Louisiana Supreme Court’s 2013 decision barring Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration from using MFP money to pay for private school vouchers could be broadened to apply to charter schools. The court found that the constitution limits those dollars to public education, which makes tapping the fund for private school payments impermissible. In the end, the Legislature ended up using general fund money to pay for the voucher program.

But charter proponents, like Jacobs, are sure to emphasize that unlike private schools, charters are taking only public school students.

Still, Fontham is hopeful the decision is a good precedent.

“The Supreme Court emphasized that money is supposed to go to school systems,” he said. “This charter school is not a school system.”

Advocate reporter Marsha Sills contributed to this report. Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.