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La. AG says charter schools can't leave teacher retirement system

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Apr 24, 2012


BATON ROUGE, La. (Legal Newsline) - Louisiana Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell, in an opinion last month, said charter schools cannot leave the state's teacher retirement system.

Last year, a cluster of schools within the Algiers Charter Schools Association decided to get rid of the state system and instead go with another plan, which would be financed individually and then matched by the employer.

Teachers at the schools protested the move, and the board of trustees for Algiers voted in October to keep the state system for another year.

However, officials warned that growing costs of participation in the system could force them to make changes in the future.

Caldwell's office explained its position to Maureen Westgard, director of the Teachers' Retirement System of Louisiana, in a five-page opinion filed March 30.

Westgard questioned whether state law permits a charter school that has chosen to participate in the state system to subsequently withdraw, by charter amendment or renewal, in light of the constitutional protections afforded to public school employees.

Jessica M.P. Thornhill, an assistant attorney general, said a charter school contract may be amended by "approving the chartering authority by an affirmative vote of at least a majority of the membership of the chartering authority when such amendment is proposed by the charter school's governing authority and the amendment will better permit the charter school to achieve its stated objectives."

However, state law does not allow modifications to the retirement system selection made upon the charter's initial approval, Thornhill said.

"Viewing La. R.S. 17:3997 as allowing for the modification of the chosen retirement plan during the charter period would be interpreting the statute in a way that violates the Louisiana Constitution," she wrote Westgard.

"Applying such an interpretation to La. R.S. 17:3997 would also violate a basic rule of statutory interpretation, that 'if a statute is susceptible of two constructions, one of which will render it constitutional and the other... raise grave and doubtful constitutional questions, the court will adopt the interpretation of the statute which... will maintain its constitutionality.'"

As to whether allowing such a modification would violate the teachers' due process rights -- another question Westgard submitted -- Caldwell's office said teachers must be given notice and an opportunity to be heard on the matter prior to the modification of their retirement benefits.

Andrea Thomas-Reynolds, Algiers chief executive, told The Times-Picayune last week that the attorney general's opinion will likely force the school system to abandon its plan to make changes.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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