Iberville schools to sue BESE over state funding of charter

The Iberville Parish School Board decided Monday it would fight to retain more than $3.8 million in state funding by suing the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The school district is seeking an injunction to stop BESE from funneling the state Minimum Foundation Program funding to a new charter school, which opened on Monday, until the matter can be heard in court.

The board made the decision during its regular meeting Monday night at the recommendation of Superintendent Ed Cancienne, who previously called the opening of the Iberville Charter Academy “an intrusion on the school district’s rights and tax money.”

Chief Financial Officer Jolain Landry said the Iberville Parish School System was set to receive more than $15.8 million in funding from the state’s Department of Education for the 2014-15 school year. But the district received notice over the summer that approximately $3.8 million of the money was instead being allocated to the Iberville Charter Academy, she said.

That allocation was based on a projected enrollment at the charter school of 376 Iberville students.

“They owe us $15.8 million,” Landry said before Monday night’s meeting. “This is a constitutional issue. The MFP funding formula is very clear on how you’re suppose to allocate funding, and that’s not what BESE is doing.”

The MFP formula, which was adopted by BESE and was approved by the state Legislature, determines the state’s cost of educating students and helps fairly allocate funds to parish- and city-run school systems.

“How can BESE allocate any MFP money to any Type 2 charter school when the school is not governed by the city or the Parish School Board?” Landry asked.

Iberville Charter Academy is a Type 2 charter, which are self-governed public schools authorized by BESE and can draw students from across the state. Charter schools operate independently of existing public school districts.

In August, BESE authorized the South Louisiana Charter Foundation 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.

When South Louisiana Charter Foundation’s application was approved, the Iberville Parish school district had a D grade. When the department released school performance scores in October, Iberville Parish had inched up to a C for its districtwide score.

Several board members have accused BESE and the Education Department of side-stepping the law to get the charter school’s application approved before the district performance scores were released last year.

Their frustration with the charter school’s move into the parish fueled several diatribes from board members supporting the superintendent’s desire to take a legal stand against BESE.

“This parish shouldn’t have to suffer; to take our local dollars to support a private business and make a profit off of our kids in this parish, it’s not right,” board member Brian Willis said before voting Monday.

Board member Nancy Broussard chided the Education Department for allowing the charter school to receive MFP funding based on enrollment projections instead of actual student counts. She also berated the department for giving charter schools more lax accountability standards compared to public schools.

Board member Tom Delahaye called charter schools a hoax and theorized the state’s push to welcome charter schools into local districts was being driven by campaign contributions.

Delahaye presented to the board a print-out from the state’s Ethics Administration Program website showing itemized campaign contributions from Charter Schools USA, the company managing the Iberville Charter Academy, to BESE members and Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“Charter Schools USA has given right at $25,000 in campaign contributions in the past three years,” he said. “This for-profit organization is giving them money to buy influence to set up a school in our parish and take advantage of our children — that’s what’s happening here.”

The School Board’s stance garnered support from the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Scott Richard, LSBA’s executive director, told the board it was taking a step in the right direction toward addressing the association’s concern over the funding inequities charter schools create.

“What we’ve seen in Louisiana … is a great proliferation of charter schools based on a for-profit model that are locating in districts that have high per-pupil allocations, especially the local share of revenue raised in the Minimum Foundation Program,” Richard said to the board.

The board voted 12-2 to proceed with legal action against BESE. Board members Darlene Ourso and John Morris voted in opposition of the decision. Donald Patterson did not attend Monday night’s meeting.

Ourso said she wasn’t opposed to the fight to retain the district’s state funding, she just preferred it if other school districts joined the lawsuit to help reduce the legal expenses for the parish.

Attorneys with the Stone, Pigman, Walther and Wittmann Law Firm are expected to file the injunction on the school district’s behalf in the 19th Judicial District Court sometime this week.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.