- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A Baton Rouge judge refused Monday to give class action status to a lawsuit claiming the state’s public school funding formulas were not properly approved by lawmakers for three years.

The decision means that any of the state’s 69 local school boards that don’t seek to become plaintiffs in the lawsuit could risk losing out on millions of dollars if the lawsuit is successful.

Judge Michael Caldwell said he has problems forcing a political body to be part of a lawsuit if those elected officials don’t want to be included. He also said he doesn’t think the legal requirements for class action status were met.

The lawsuit was filed by the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board, the Louisiana Association of Educators and dozens of the union’s local affiliates. They had asked for class action status to include all of Louisiana’s school boards as parties to the lawsuit.

The trial has been set for July 10, according to Jimmy Faircloth, a lawyer representing the state.

The legal challenge stems from a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling last year that declared the Legislature didn’t properly pass the 2012-13 school funding formula. In the same decision, the high court ruled that the use of the formula to pay for vouchers to send students to private schools was unconstitutional.

The St. John the Baptist Parish School Board claims that under the procedure outlined by the Supreme Court for passage of the formula, financing plans approved in 2010, 2011 and 2012 should be voided and school districts should be paid under a prior formula that included an annual funding increase to account for inflation.

The lawsuit seeks $200 million more in school funding than the state is providing, if all 69 school boards are included. But that number could shrink if the judge rules for the plaintiffs, but doesn’t include school boards who didn’t sign on to the lawsuit.

Charles Patin, a lawyer hired by the St. John school board, said more than 40 other local school boards have expressed interested in adding themselves to the lawsuit. He said he will file a motion to include them in the case.

Caldwell also rejected a plaintiffs’ request to prohibit state officials, including members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, from directly contacting school boards about the lawsuit.

The request came after BESE Vice President Jim Garvey urged members of the Jefferson Parish School Board not to join the lawsuit, suggesting that suing the state could jeopardize education grant money the board receives.

He also told the board, according to a transcript included in court documents, that even if school boards win the lawsuit, state lawmakers would take the money out of future school financing formulas. After Garvey’s comments, the Jefferson Parish School Board voted to rescind its support of the lawsuit.

Caldwell said he “disappointed and somewhat taken aback” by Garvey’s comments. But he added, “I don’t think I have any right to prohibit them from their right of free speech.”