School board sues again in effort to challenge funding formula, get more for local districts

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — A local school board that lost its first legal effort to get more state money for public schools is trying a second lawsuit in the same courthouse, but with a different judge.

Judge Michael Caldwell dismissed claims earlier this year that the Legislature didn't properly pass the 2012-13 school funding formula and owed the districts $200 million more than it was providing.

Now, the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board is making a similar argument about the formula used in the 2013-14 budget year, hoping for a more favorable ruling with Judge Janice Clark and arguing public school districts could be owed as much as $260 million.

Lawyers for the state say it's improper to try the same case before different judges. But Clark refused Monday to dismiss the lawsuit.

"These are two very different and distinct causes of action and claims and can be litigated independently," Clark said.

The legal challenge 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.

The St. John the Baptist Parish School Board claims that under the procedure outlined by the Supreme Court for passage of the formula, financing plans approved in subsequent years should be voided and school districts should be paid under a prior formula that included an annual 2.75 percent funding increase to account for inflation.

In June, Caldwell ruled that while the 2012-13 formula might not have been properly passed, the court can't order state lawmakers to appropriate money according to an older formula and dismissed the case. In his decision, Caldwell cited the separation of powers among branches of government and the Legislature's authority over the state's purse strings.

That first lawsuit was also filed by the Louisiana Association of Educators and was joined by dozens of other local school boards. A lawyer for the teacher union said an appeal of Caldwell's decision was planned.

But rather than wait for the outcome of an appeal, the St. John school board also filed a second lawsuit challenging the school funding formula used for the 2013-14 budget year on similar grounds — and going it alone on this case.

"The only difference in the two cases is they added a year," attorney Jonathan Ringo, representing the state, told Clark. "Same plaintiff, same defendants, same legal arguments."

Charles Patin, a lawyer hired by the St. John school board, said the lawsuits involved two different occurrences across different budget years and should be treated differently. Clark agreed with his argument.

Next up, the state is asking Caldwell to transfer the latest lawsuit to his court for consideration.

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