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Shelby County Schools taps large Memphis firm to take over state funding lawsuit

Baker Donelson law firm
Baker Donelson law firm
Laura Faith Kebede

“How much money do you need right now?”

The loaded question came from Commissioner Justin Ford to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson as Shelby County Schools funding took center stage during a budget meeting earlier this week.

Hopson’s answer — $100 million — was not surprising, even though he knew the county couldn’t contribute that much. That’s how much the district said in a lawsuit filed last summer that it has been shortchanged by the state’s school funding formula every year.

Downtown building where Baker Donelson is headquartered in Memphis.
Downtown building where Baker Donelson is headquartered in Memphis.
Laura Faith Kebede

Now, after initially hiring lawyers with experience on school funding suits to file the suit, the district has turned to a local law firm to press the case. In February, the district hired Baker Donelson, which is based in Memphis, has six of its 20 U.S. offices in Tennessee, and has worked on Shelby County Schools litigation in the past.

That move ended the district’s relationship with the Kansas firm Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, which won a similar state funding lawsuit there in 2010.

It also came just as the district hired Rodney Moore, a partner at the Kansas firm, to be its own general counsel and chief legal officer.

The school district will spend more per hour on the local firm, although officials said they had negotiated a discounted rate. But Moore said Baker Donelson’s Tennessee expertise will make for a more effective case against how the state funds its schools.

The state’s answer to Shelby County Schools’ lawsuit is due July 8, according to Lori Patterson, one of several attorneys working with Moore. The firm will then interview state officials and gather documents related to state funding to build the case, which is likely to take years to unfold.

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