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Judge rules state should pay $137M more to local school districts, formula not done correctly

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Louisiana owes local public schools $137 million because state lawmakers didn't properly pass previous school funding formulas, a state district judge ruled Monday.

The St. John the Baptist Parish School Board filed a lawsuit claiming the Legislature didn't meet passage requirements for the formula used in the 2013-14 budget year. Thirty other local school boards, nearly half of Louisiana's parish school boards, joined the lawsuit.

Brian Blackwell, an attorney representing the schools, said the formula in dispute was "untimely introduced and, therefore, it never became effective."

Judge Janice Clark ruled for the boards after hearing arguments from lawyers for the school districts and the state Education Department.

The boards argued the last properly approved formula came in 2009 and districts should be paid through that method, which included an inflationary increase. That means, under Clark's decision, the school boards that sued are owed $137 million from the state plus interest.

Lawyer Jimmy Faircloth, representing the state, said the decision would be appealed. He argued that the formula being challenged had expired, along with that year's budget, and couldn't be disputed.

"They're asking you to go back in time and rule on instruments that are already gone," Faircloth said.

School districts won't be likely to get the money quickly.

Besides the appeal, it's unclear how much authority a judge has to force state lawmakers — who control state appropriations — to pony up money deemed owed.

"There's no mechanism to enforce a judgment against the state," Faircloth said.

The state education board develops the formula each year. Lawmakers can only approve or reject what the board sends them. If the Legislature doesn't pass a new formula, the prior financing plan stays in place.

The school boards' lawsuit stems from a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling that declared the Legislature didn't properly pass the 2012-13 school funding formula. In the same decision, the high court ruled that the use of the formula to pay for vouchers to send students to private schools was unconstitutional.

Under the procedure outlined by the Supreme Court for formula passage, Blackwell said, financing plans approved in several prior years should be voided and school districts should be paid under an older formula that included an annual 2.75 percent funding increase to account for inflation. A formula approved by lawmakers for the 2014-15 school year didn't include the inflationary increase and was properly passed for allocations since then, Blackwell said.

Another judge dismissed a similar school board lawsuit seeking more money for districts because the 2012-13 financing formula wasn't approved correctly.

Judge Michael Caldwell ruled in June 2014 that although the disputed formula might not have been passed properly, the court can't order lawmakers to appropriate money according to an older formula and dismissed the case. In his decision, Caldwell cited the separation of power among branches of government and the Legislature's authority over the state's purse strings.

Caldwell's ruling is on appeal by the school boards. Clark refused a request from Faircloth to delay the case in her court until the appeals court ruled in that separate lawsuit.

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