State to pay $750,000 more
The price tag for defending Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education policies against legal challenges is growing.
The state Department of Education is boosting its contracts for outside lawyers by $750,000, to represent the department in lawsuits tied to Jindal’s voucher program that uses tax dollars to send children to private schools.
A majority of the members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education agreed Tuesday to the legal spending.
The department’s contract with the Washington law firm Cooper & Kirk is growing from $150,000 to $650,000. The agency’s contract with the Faircloth Law Group — the Louisiana law firm of Jindal’s former executive counsel, Jimmy Faircloth — is rising from $20,000 to as much as $270,000.
“I regret that there is this litigation,” Superintendent of Education John White said. But he added, “We have to defend our priorities in court.”
Lee Barrios, a retired St. Tammany Parish teacher and critic of the voucher program, told BESE that the legal expense was a waste of taxpayer money.
Lawsuits were filed by two teacher unions and the state’s school board association objecting to the voucher program’s financing and by the U.S. Department of Justice challenging the program’s compliance with federal desegregation orders.
The unions and school boards association won their lawsuit, with the Louisiana Supreme Court declaring the use of the public school formula to pay for vouchers unconstitutional. Jindal and lawmakers continue to fund vouchers, now outside of the public school formula.
But the high court’s ruling in the voucher case also declared the Legislature didn’t properly pass the 2012-13 school funding formula.
That decision led to a lawsuit from a local school board and one of the unions, claiming school districts are owed $200 million more than the state is providing because the formulas weren’t properly approved for three years.
Faircloth’s law firm is representing the Department of Education in the funding lawsuit that spun off from the voucher ruling, according to department spokesman Barry Landry.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department lawsuit still is pending in federal court in New Orleans. Cooper & Kirk is defending the Education Department in that case.
White said the outside lawyers were hired because of the number of lawsuits and complexity of the work.
The Education Department isn’t the only state agency that has drummed up legal costs defending the Jindal administration against lawsuits since the governor pushed through the Legislature a series of sweeping education law changes in 2012.
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office also has a separate contract with Faircloth’s law firm worth up to $410,000 for representing the state in lawsuits seeking to throw out Jindal’s education policies, including the governor’s revamp of teacher tenure law.
Two of the nine board members present at Tuesday’s BESE hearing objected to the legal contracts: Lottie Beebe of Breaux Bridge and Carolyn Hill of Baton Rouge.