Baton Rouge judge rules use of tax dollars to fund certain charter schools is proper _lowres

Attorney Mark Beebe for the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools enters the 19th JDC for a hearing where the case concerning charter school funding was thrown out by State District Judge Wilson Fields. Of the flow of state money to 33 BESE-authorized charter schools, seven of those schools are in EBR, six are in Orleans, three in Lafayette and two in Jefferson. Plaintiffs plan to appeal.

The chance of a halt next week in state aid to 32 charter schools ended Friday night.

Earlier in the day, state Superintendent of Education John White said the aid would be stopped following a ruling by 19th Judicial District Court Judge Wilson Fields, of Baton Rouge.

But a few hours later, an appeals court ruling changed that.

Late Friday night, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal issued a stay in the charter schools lawsuit, which removes the threat of an immediate interruption in state aid to the nearly three dozen charter schools.

The issue stems from a lawsuit that questions the legality of state aid to some charter schools.

The Louisiana Association of Educators, which filed the lawsuit, prevailed in an earlier ruling at the 1st Circuit. But earlier on Friday, charter school advocates asked Fields to delay the impact of the ruling, saying that state dollars for the charter schools would otherwise be stopped next week.

Critics of the lawsuit predicted that the 32 charter schools with more than 16,000 students could face major financial problems as early as next week.

"For a small organization that does not have a source of income other than the MFP (Minimum Foundation Program state aid), when the MFP has been cut off obviously there are cash flow issues," White said. "It is not like an organization with a large, urban school system in our state which typically has a fund balance in the tens of millions of dollars."

Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools executive director Caroline Roemer said new schools "have not had the chance to build reserves." Others that have been in operation since 2008 likely have reserves that can carry them through the end of the school year, she said.

Type 2 charter schools are self-governed public schools, approved by BESE, that operate independently of existing public school districts. They receive funds through the MFP.

A court document filed in the charter school funding case states that the next monthly MFP payment is required by law to be made no later than Jan. 25.

"The schools' failure to receive the January payment may ultimately result in the schools' bankruptcy and closure and the relocation of over 16,000 students in the middle of the school year," according to the document filed by attorneys for BESE, the state Department of Education, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and several individual charter schools. "The alternatives for these children to attend other schools are limited."

The 1st Circuit panel, by a 3-2 vote, declared Jan. 9 that MFP dollars meant to fund parish and city school systems cannot be used to fund Type 2 charter schools.

Fields, who ruled the opposite in 2015 and was reversed by the appeals court, refused Friday to stay the appellate decision.

Fields, while noting that he disagrees with the reversal, said the 19th Judicial District Court does not sit as an appellate court over the 1st Circuit.

The state, along with the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and various other charter schools, had asked the judge to put the 1st Circuit ruling on hold, warning that the ruling will dramatically impact more than 16,000 charter school students and thousands of teachers, administrators and other staff.

"I understand a lot of kids are going to be affected," Fields said.

But in ruling it is unconstitutional to fund operations of Type 2 charter schools with funds appropriated to the MFP for parish and city school systems, Fields noted that the appeals court sent the case back to him for further proceedings "consistent with this opinion."

"What's my authority to say, 'Big Brother, I'm going to stay your ruling?'" Fields asked during a hearing in his courtroom Friday. "If I issue a stay, that's contrary to the (1st Circuit) opinion."

Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools attorney Mark Beebe, who delivered the bulk of the association's and the state's arguments to Fields, said afterward either the 1st Circuit will be asked in a rehearing petition to stay its order or the Louisiana Supreme Court will be asked to do so.

"We're definitely going to seek the relief the Type 2s need," he said outside Fields' courtroom.

Roemer stressed that the 1st Circuit did not say Type 2 charter schools can't exist or they can't be funded, but that they cannot be funded through the MFP. She said members of the Legislature and BESE will be hearing from the association.

The 1st Circuit refused Jan. 18 to stay its ruling because the state and the charter school interests had not filed a rehearing application with the court.

Attorneys for the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Iberville Parish School Board argued against the request that Fields stay the appeals court decision.

Michael Fontham, who represents the School Board, told the judge it is "beyond comprehension" that a 19th JDC judge would stay a 1st Circuit judgment.

Fontham also argued in court papers that every dollar sent to a Type 2 charter school from the MFP "is a dollar denied to a parish or city school system."

The money appropriated to the MFP for funding parish and city school systems is constitutionally mandated. One option available to state lawmakers is to enact a line item appropriation to fund Type 2 charter schools with state general fund dollars.

Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.