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Hamilton County school board attorney Scott Bennett

Brown vs. Board of Education launched U.S. school desegregation in 1954.

The attorney for the Hamilton County Department of Education cited the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursday night as an example of what might happen if the local school board joins a larger lawsuit to get the state to fully fund its Basic Education Program (BEP), the formula it uses to fund public schools.

"I liken it to Brown vs. Board of Education," attorney D. Scott Bennett said, referring to the court's second Brown ruling in 1955, in which it called for desegregation to proceed "with all deliberate speed."

"I think we may have reached the point ... this time [for a court] to say, 'Fund this with all deliberate speed,'" he said.

Bennett said rural Tennessee school districts successfully sued the state three times over the BEP. Yet it's still underfunded by as much as $515 million, according to a 153-page annual report released Nov. 1 by the Basic Education Program Review Committee.

The turning point may come, Bennett said, if Hamilton County and Tennessee's other large school districts in Knoxville, metropolitan Nashville and Memphis sue the state and win.

The Hamilton County school board voted 8-to-1 Thursday to explore the idea of a lawsuit, following the Knox County Board of Education's Feb. 2 vote to explore the idea. The school boards in Nashville-Davidson County and Memphis have yet to vote.

Greg Martin, who represents Hixson on the school board, was the sole opponent, and his questions about the lawsuit prompted Bennett to discuss the BEP's history and make the Brown vs. Board of Education analogy.

"Help me understand why we're going to win this," Martin said to Bennett. Even if the lawsuit succeeded, Martin asked, couldn't the state just get out of it by repealing laws?

"They can't repeal the constitution," Bennett told Martin.

The state constitution requires Tennessee to provide kindergarten through 12th-grade education as a "fundamental right," Bennett said.

"The General Assembly is obligated under the state constitution to provide a system of education," he said. It's one of "only a few things that the General Assembly has to do."

Colleges and universities, in contrast, aren't on the list of things the state has to fund, according to Bennett.

The Basic Education Program Review Committee was established in response to the second lawsuit brought against the state by small school districts, Bennett said. The data the committee has compiled could be used against the state, he said.

"We actually have some really, really good data," Bennett said.

The small school districts sued the state, saying they weren't getting their fair share of BEP funding. But now school districts of all sizes, along with teachers organizations such as the Tennessee Education Association and the Professional Educators of Tennessee, want the overall funding increased.

"The small schools are having this conversation," Bennett said.

Tennessee's large school districts belong to the Coalition of Large Area School Systems (CLASS), a loosely affiliated group. If the districts all agree to explore the idea, an attorney would draft a complaint for further action.

"The next step is essentially finding someone who will take the lead in drafting a complaint," Bennett told the board.

Martin said the state would have to raise taxes to fully fund the BEP.

"The voters could make that decision without a lawsuit," Martin said. "The people in Tennessee, they don't want to see taxes raised."

But Signal Mountain school board member Jonathan Welch said that's not true. He said the state increased its TennCare budget $531 million since 2012, yet "not a dime" extra went toward K-12 education.

"That has nothing to do with raising taxes," Welch said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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