Haslam’s last-ditch effort to kill school funding lawsuit falls short in Tennessee

A school funding lawsuit that has hung over Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration for more than three years has survived a third attempt in six months to kill it, including a “Hail Mary” legal maneuver before Tennessee’s Court of Appeals.

In the waning days before the Republican governor leaves office on Jan. 19, the appellate court denied Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery’s request to consider an appeal for dismissal.

The third strike increases the likelihood of a 2019 trial over whether the state adequately funds its K-12 schools — a question that could have far-reaching implications for Tennessee’s system of funding public education.

But it’s uncertain whether the case will go to trial in April as scheduled due to the retirement this month of the Nashville judge who has presided over the litigation since its beginning.

The case on Claudia Bonnyman’s docket already has been reassigned to Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle, and Lyle has not announced whether the timeline will change. While Lyle has more than 20 years on the bench and is well-versed in matters involving the Tennessee Constitution, the case is complex and its file is dense. Even before starting to take depositions last fall, legal teams had filed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents.

The litigation pits Tennessee’s two largest school districts against the state over whether it allocates enough money to provide an adequate education, particularly for urban school systems that serve more students who live in poverty, have special needs, or come from non-English-speaking homes. Memphis-based Shelby County Schools filed the suit in 2015, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools joined the litigation in 2017.

Haslam frequently has lamented that the districts took the state to court as Tennessee was investing an extra $1.5 billion in education during his eight years in office. But district leaders in Memphis, Nashville, and many other communities argue that the state is still underfunding schools and therefore not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide children with a “free, adequate, and equitable education.”

The case could break new ground in Tennessee. The question of funding adequacy is different from the equity argument used in two successful landmark lawsuits filed by smaller and rural school districts in the 1980s and ’90s.

In its latest maneuver, the state asked the appellate court to consider an “extraordinary appeal” two months after Bonnyman turned back the state’s second attempt since July to derail the case. The appellate denial was handed down just before Christmas.

The rebuff leaves the state with only one other option to question the case’s legal standing before trial — going directly to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office declined on Thursday to comment on that avenue, and a spokeswoman for Haslam also declined to comment on the latest court decision.

Attorneys representing schools in Memphis and Nashville said they were pleased that the case has been reassigned to a seasoned judge like Lyle instead of the new judge who eventually will replace Bonnyman.

“This is a once-in-a-generation sort of case, so you really want somebody with a tremendous amount of experience on constitutional issues,” said Charles Grant with the Tennessee law firm of Baker Donelson, which is representing both districts.