Declaring that “money makes a difference” when it comes to educating Tennessee’s public school students, the Shelby County Board of Education sued the state on Monday claiming that Tennessee isn’t adequately funding its schools, especially for its most vulnerable children.

In a 38-page suit filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, the Memphis-based district argues that the state has violated its constitutional duty to “equitably and adequately fund public school education for all students.”

The suit notes that Memphis and Shelby County have a disproportionately high number of students who are minorities, have disabilities and live in extreme poverty. “Because of the lack of funding, the District is unable to provide many of these impoverished, mainly-minority students with an education that would allow them to achieve the outcomes mandated by the Tennessee Constitution …” the suit says.

The lawsuit by Tennessee’s largest public school district adds significant weight to ongoing litigation over the adequacy and equity of education funding through the state’s Basic Education Plan, or BEP.

In March, the boards for seven school districts in southeast Tennessee, led by Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, filed a lawsuit charging that the state has created a system that “shifts the cost of education to local boards of education, schools, teachers and students, resulting in substantially unequal educational opportunities across the State.” That lawsuit is pending, and the state has urged dismissal, arguing that the legislature has leeway in funding K-12 education.

Asked about the latest funding lawsuit on Monday, a spokesman for Gov. Bill Haslam declined to comment on any pending litigation. A spokeswoman for Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also declined to comment. Both were named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with members of the State Board of Education and state legislative leaders.

Shelby County School leaders held a morning news conference at Riverside School to explain why they are taking the state to court.

“We are asking the state to live up to its constitutional obligation,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “(Our students) deserve better than this. We want to give the type of education that our kids need and deserve.”

District leaders have argued that the state grossly miscalculates how much an average teacher costs and doesn’t take into account the financial impact of the growing charter school sector and a host of state-mandated reforms placed on large urban school districts.

If the state fully funded public schools, Shelby County Schools would get an extra $100 million in state funding annually, according to school board member Chris Caldwell.

All year, district leaders have explored the possibility of litigation and in June hired the Wichita-based office of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, a firm that has helped urban districts win a similar school funding lawsuit in Kansas.

In the meantime, the cash-strapped school system has cut more than $275 million from its budget in the last two years alone, resulting in the closings of 17 schools since 2013, teacher layoffs and increased class sizes. County government leaders say the county has largely picked up the state’s slack, allotting 60 percent of its budget toward public education across Shelby County.

“… We have had to constantly cut resources, lay off needed staff members, and remove programs that can help our students remain competitive,” said Teresa Jones, chairwoman of the Shelby County Board of Education. “In a time when academic and career standards are increasing, our students need more resources.”

The lawsuit contends that the district cuts are the result of inadequate state funding, forcing the district to break state constitutional mandates to provide an adequate education for its children. The suit blames the level of funding on some BEP components, combined with an under-appropriation of money to fully fund the formula.

District leaders predict the lawsuit could take years to wind through the court system and could cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, in legal fees. But board members and administrators said they are confident that the district will reap millions more back in a victory or settlement and set a legal precedent for all of the state’s 142 school districts.

The state annually distributes about $6 billion in tax revenue to local districts based on the BEP formula.

Haslam, who this year championed a $147 million increase in education spending across Tennessee to address BEP funding and increase teacher salaries, repeatedly has urged district leaders to engage the state in conversation instead of litigation.

 

Editor’s note: This story updates an earlier version to show that the lawsuit has been filed and to include subsequent comments from leaders of Shelby County Schools.