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Mississippi Districts Sue State for Underfunding

A group of 14 Mississippi school districts is asking the state to pay up $115 million—the amount the group says the districts have been underfunded by the state since the 2010 fiscal year.

The districts, including the Okolona, Prentiss County, and Clay County school districts in northeast Mississippi, filed a lawsuit against the state in Hinds County on Thursday, asking the state to fully fund their schools.

Mississippi has only twice disbursed the full amount under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program— or MAEP— the Daily Journal reports.  Since the 2010 fiscal year, the total amount the state owes all eligible schools has risen to $1.5 billion, according to the paper.

MAEP provides more state aid to poorer districts to help them with basics, such as staff salaries and building maintenance.

The lawsuit was filed by the MAEP Legal Group, which includes former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who, as lieutenant governor, helped to steer the MAEP into being over Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice's veto. 

Musgrove, who served as governor from 2000 to 2004, has been canvassing the state looking for districts to sign up to be part of the lawsuit. His legal filing comes at a time when another group, called Better Schools Better Jobs, is working on incorporating a full-funding formula into the state's constitution. That group wants a constitutional amendment ensuring full school funding placed on the November 2015 ballot. It would require a percentage of the state revenue growth to be dedicated to MAEP, The Clarion-Ledger reports.

Superintendents are not in agreement on the best way to proceed to ensure continuous revenue. Some fear that the MAEP lawsuit, if successful, could lead to a one-time pay day for the schools.

According to the Daily Journal,  Prentiss County Schools is owed about $8.2 million, Okolona $2.4 million, and Clay County $644,000.

"School districts cannot live without this funding, and local districts are being forced to raise local taxes to try to make up for the money that is being held hostage in Jackson," Musgrove said in a press release, according to the paper. "We hope to get as much money back as possible for every school district. We hope to make education a top priority in Mississippi again. We hope to create opportunity for everyone in Mississippi. The only way to do that is to legally force the state to fully fund education."

The school districts of Clarksdale, Greenville, Hattiesburg, Leake County, Richton, Simpson County, Smith County, Tate County, Wayne County, West Tallahatchie, and Wilkinson County school are also part of the lawsuit. Other school districts that want to join the lawsuit have up to 30 days to so. 

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