With its new lawyer, Shelby County Schools forges ahead with state funding lawsuit

An attorney with the law firm handling Shelby County Schools’ funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee is joining the district as its general counsel and chief legal officer.

Rodney Moore

In his new role, Rodney Moore will oversee litigation stemming from the district’s lawsuit, filed last August, charging that the state is not equitably and adequately funding public education for all students through its school funding formula called the Basic Education Plan, or BEP.

Moore’s hiring signals the commitment of the state’s largest public school district to follow through with the litigation, even as Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed to increase K-12 education funding by $261 million statewide in 2016-17.

“There’s a crisis in confidence that the state is going to do the right thing and fund the district,” Moore told Chalkbeat on Tuesday night after being introduced to Shelby County’s school board.

He said other school district leaders concur, though most have not taken their concerns to court. “Everyone’s being hammered with inadequate funding,” he said.

Moore joins the district from Atlanta where he was a partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, the same firm hired last year by Shelby County Schools to explore litigation. The firm has won a similar school funding lawsuit in Kansas. Moore has resigned as a partner, and Shelby County Schools is retaining his former law firm in the case. His yearly salary will be $188,000.

Moore is a former president of the National Bar Association and has served on the National School Board Association’s Council of School Lawyers. In addition to being a partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, he has served as general counsel of the East Side Union High School District in Silicon Valley, Calif., and Atlanta Public Schools.

He replaces Valerie Speakman, who resigned last month after eight years with Shelby County Schools.

Leaders with Shelby County Schools say the district would receive $100 million more in state funding each year if state funding was equitable. In the coming months, the school system’s administrators must reconcile a $72 million gap in its budget for next school year.

A court date is not set for Shelby County’s lawsuit, but the first motions are scheduled for Feb. 19 in a separate but related lawsuit led by Hamilton County’s school board.

The Hamilton County suit was filed last year and includes six smaller districts in southeast Tennessee as co-plaintiffs. Their suit claims that the state’s funding formula underestimates teachers’ salaries by about $532 million and classroom costs by about $134 million.

Though both cases could take years and amass significant legal fees, school officials say the long-term benefits of correcting the state’s funding formula will outweigh the cost.

The governor has maintained that the state is adequately funding its schools and demonstrating its commitment to public education in this year’s increased budget and next year’s proposed increased budget.

Shelby County school board members welcomed the expertise that Moore brings to the district.

“He’s coming from one of the law firms with the best results in suing states in the country,” said school board member Mike Kernell, also a former state lawmaker from Memphis.