Schools join lawsuit against voucher program
The St. Charles School Board voted unanimously last week to join at least 14 other school districts in a lawsuit to challenge the state’s expanded student voucher program.
The lawsuit will challenge the constitutionality of the voucher program, known as Act II, under the separation of church and state because local and state tax dollars will be diverted to religious schools. The lawsuit also objects to the law under a state constitutional requirement that bills serve a single purpose.
Superintendent Rodney Lafon said although he believes the new law is in violation of the constitution, his main concern remains that local collected taxes may be spent outside the parish.
"I just think that the board feels strongly that our local people voted on the local dollars for certain things, whether it was for salaries or whether it was for enhancements to the buildings or whatever, and it’s hard to believe that those dollars can be taken away to go to private or religious schools when the taxpayers have already voted on something specifically," Lafon said. "I don’t think that the board is disputing necessarily so much about the state dollars, although there should be some dispute too. Somewhere in here somebody’s got to talk about the separation of church and state and I think that’s what the lawsuit will be about."
Jim Melohn, chief financial and administrative officer for St. Charles Parish Public Schools, said the district spends around $12,000 per student each year, which is near the top ten in school district spending statewide.
"I’d say we’re close to the top ten, maybe not quite in the top ten," Melohn said. "Which again is what concerns us when they talk about sending funds to schools outside of our district with the voucher program and sending more than they are actually spending in the other districts."
Lafon also said the voucher law, as it is currently set up, allows students to go to schools that do not have accountability requirements like public schools do, such as LEAP testing at the end of certain grades.
"I’m just going to speak for myself for a second and say if in fact we are going to take dollars away from our local citizens, it seems to me that somebody should have to build in quality control and it shouldn’t be this board or this superintendent. It should be the state whose taking our dollars in the first place," Lafon said. "I think somebody has missed the boat when it comes to quality control."
An article released by Reuter’s earlier this month echoed Lafon’s sentiment and revealed that some of the schools eligible for the most vouchers under the program rely on instructional DVDs instead of teachers and others teach biblically-based coursework that makes no mention of the theory of evolution.
District 5 School Board member John Smith, who is also the president of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said the cost of the lawsuit would be negligible to the school system.
"You should know as a far as monetary expenses are concerned in past suits of this nature, the way the attorneys have handled that has been by a cost of approximately 25 cents per child in the district," Smith said. "So in St. Charles Parish that would be 25 cents times approximately 10,000 youngsters, meaning that about $2,500 is what our costs would be depending upon the number of districts that participate in the suit."
In addition to the upcoming School Board lawsuit, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, a statewide teacher’s union, has filed its own lawsuit. School spokeswoman Regina McMillan said St. Charles’ teachers would not be participating in that lawsuit because they are not represented by the union.
The school district’s lawsuit is expected to be filed later this month by Baton Rouge-based law firm Hammond and Sills.
The School Board also voted to extend Lafon’s 18-year tenure as superintendent for four more years at his current salary of $170,282 per year.
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