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Lawyers joust over property tax transfers to charter schools

MGN Online

Mississippi's charter school law unconstitutionally diverts property tax money away from local school districts, lawyers for a group of parents told the state's high court on Tuesday.

Posted: Jun 19, 2019 10:16 AM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's charter school law unconstitutionally diverts property tax money away from local school districts, lawyers for a group of parents told the state's high court on Tuesday. But the state urged justices to uphold the law, arguing charter schools also belong to the local district.

The law's opponents lost before a Hinds County judge, but in their appeal they argue the transfers are banned under the plain language of the Mississippi Constitution, as interpreted in a 2012 state Supreme Court decision. They say charter schools are harming traditional district schools by draining money away. They add that if the Legislature wants Mississippi to have charter schools, it should find some other way to fund them.

"The money is being spent in a way that's unconstitutional," said Christine Bischoff, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center who argued the case on behalf of the plaintiffs

Lawyers for the state and charter schools say that's a wrong reading of the law. They argue that students who attend charter schools are residents of local school districts and are benefiting from local property tax money that Mississippi's charter school law requires be transferred from school districts.

"They are the public schools used by the taxed district's students," Krissy Nobile, an assistant attorney general, argued before the court.

Mississippi's 1890 constitution says "Any county or separate school district may levy an additional tax, as prescribed by general law, to maintain its schools." In 2012, the state Supreme Court interpreted that law to say lawmakers could not force the Pascagoula-Gautier school district to share property tax revenue with three other Jackson County school districts.

As Bischoff urged the justices to follow that case, much of her argument hinged on the word "its." She argued that the only schools eligible to receive local property tax money are those under the direct control of a local school district. Under state law, each charter school is a separate public school district that isn't under the control of a traditional local district. She argues for a narrower interpretation of the language than the state's lawyers advocated.

"The government has argued that 'its' could mean a lot of different things," Bischoff said.

That argument drew hostile questioning from five of the nine justices, though, indicating the plaintiffs could have a tough path persuading them that the lower court judge ruled incorrectly.

"The real owners of that district are the schoolchildren, aren't they?" asked Justice Kenny Griffis at one point, in a line of reasoning that could suggest that any schools benefiting the residents of a district are eligible to receive tax money. That's a distinction from the Pascagoula case, where local money was going to schools that Pascagoula and Gautier residents could not typically attend.

"Are they the schools controlled by the local school boards, or are they the schools used by the taxed district's students? Nobile asked during her argument. "I think it's the latter."

Justices will release a decision later.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 33591

Reported Deaths: 1204
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds264246
DeSoto176718
Madison135536
Jones115949
Neshoba101673
Harrison100312
Rankin99915
Lauderdale93781
Forrest92743
Scott78515
Jackson70417
Copiah62715
Washington62610
Leake59820
Lee57521
Holmes57041
Oktibbeha55728
Wayne55116
Warren54020
Yazoo5336
Grenada5227
Lowndes51513
Leflore50756
Lamar5007
Lincoln49234
Pike46617
Sunflower4368
Monroe43135
Lafayette4194
Covington3965
Panola3926
Bolivar37018
Attala36523
Simpson3603
Newton35210
Adams33218
Tate31912
Pontotoc3166
Marion30812
Chickasaw29119
Claiborne28910
Winston28210
Noxubee2738
Pearl River26932
Jasper2666
Marshall2643
Clay25111
Smith23412
Union23311
Coahoma2136
Clarke21125
Walthall2087
Lawrence1892
Yalobusha1838
Kemper17914
Carroll17111
Humphreys1569
Tallahatchie1564
Montgomery1432
Calhoun1425
Tippah14211
Itawamba1408
Hancock13413
Webster12811
Tunica1153
Jefferson1143
Jefferson Davis1144
Prentiss1113
Greene1089
Amite1043
George943
Wilkinson949
Tishomingo911
Quitman891
Alcorn762
Perry764
Choctaw754
Stone722
Franklin472
Benton420
Sharkey400
Issaquena101
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 48588

Reported Deaths: 1042
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson5687161
Mobile4315136
Montgomery4275109
Tuscaloosa238248
Marshall181511
Madison16208
Lee146337
Shelby141424
Morgan11575
Baldwin10399
Walker101825
Elmore97519
Dallas9189
Franklin90616
Etowah83413
DeKalb7905
Chambers64727
Autauga64312
Butler63728
Tallapoosa60669
Russell5890
Unassigned53826
Houston5366
Limestone5251
Lauderdale5146
Cullman4905
Lowndes47922
Pike4525
Colbert4426
St. Clair4402
Escambia4358
Calhoun4035
Coffee3923
Covington38110
Bullock36910
Barbour3622
Jackson3432
Talladega3337
Dale3261
Marengo32011
Hale31722
Wilcox2958
Clarke2876
Sumter28512
Winston2773
Chilton2762
Blount2581
Monroe2442
Pickens2446
Marion24114
Randolph2289
Conecuh2187
Macon2029
Choctaw19912
Bibb1981
Greene1888
Perry1791
Henry1403
Crenshaw1253
Washington1217
Lawrence1130
Cherokee1117
Geneva860
Lamar801
Fayette721
Clay692
Coosa601
Cleburne391
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