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Supreme Court Rules Bridgeport School Takeover Broke The Law
On the theory that anything making Paul Vallas squirm is positive, maybe this should be posted under Good News. But the decision is a narrow and technical one, not really stomping on the governor's engineering school takeover. Probably Governor Malloy's own history has something to do with his school takeover decision.
As a child, Malloy suffered from learning disabilities and difficulties with motor coordination. He did not learn to tie his shoes until the fifth grade and was considered mentally retarded by his elementary school teachers. Malloy eventually was diagnosed with dyslexia and learned the skills necessary to succeed academically. He does not write or type, and rarely reads from notes in public, but developed an extraordinarily useful memory. He graduated magna cum laude from Boston College and later earned his law degree from Boston College Law School.
Vermont also has a governor identified as dyslexic--and who has strong feelings about being abused by public schools. As a longtime teacher of kids with learning difficulties, I sympathize but my sympathy is limited. Men in power have no right to universalize their own experience.
By Edmund H. Mahony and Kathleen Megan
— Control of Bridgeport's underperforming school district became unclear Tuesday after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state violated the law when it disbanded the city's elected board of education last summer and replaced it with an appointed board.
School reformers viewed the high court's decision as a setback, even as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy planned a tour of the state to push a package of reform measures through the legislature. Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch began pressing for the takeover early last year as a means of asserting greater control of local school spending.
The decision sets in motion steps to compel Bridgeport to schedule a special election to replace the elected members of the school board that was disbanded in July. Some lawyers say it is possible that an election will not be necessary if the General Assembly acts quickly to adopt a retroactive legislative fix proposed by the Malloy administration. The fix would cure legal problems the high court has associated with the takeover.
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"Today's Supreme Court decision is disappointing and has the potential to seriously disrupt the educational opportunities of Bridgeport's schoolchildren this year," Malloy's top legal aide, Andrew McDonald, said Tuesday. "We are reviewing the implications of this decision and intend to discuss further legal and legislative options with state and local officials in the very near future."
There was celebration among opponents of the takeover, including Maria Pereira, an elected board member whose suit led to the court's ruling.
"I would like to thank the Supreme Court justices for being so thoughtful in their questions," she said. "Reinstatement — that would be my hope. We were elected by the citizens of Bridgeport. We have more than a right, we have a duty to the citizens of Bridgeport. I have a child in the Bridgeport schools. I owe it to her and to the 20,000 children in the school system to do my job and to do it to the best of my ability."
Malloy, Finch and their allies on the State Board of Education joined last year to replace the city's elected school board under a law that gives the state authority to intervene in chronically underperforming school systems. In its lengthy, majority decision — the court also produced two concurrences and a dissent — the high court cited measurements showing that Bridgeport students have underperformed for at least seven years.
But the majority opinion, written by Justice Peter Zarella and released Tuesday afternoon, concluded that the state failed to comply with a portion of the law that says it must require an elected local board to undergo and complete training before it is replaced, or reconstituted.
The court rejected arguments by the state and by Bridgeport that the takeover complied with the law because a 6-3 majority on Bridgeport's elected board essentially dissolved itself when it voted in July to authorize the takeover. Takeover supporters had argued that the July vote effectively waived the training requirement.
The court disagreed. After a lengthy analysis of, among other things, "Connecticut's long-standing policy of preferring and preserving locally elected boards of education," the majority concluded that the training requirement cannot be waived.
The court's majority opinion characterized mandatory training as a kind of last-ditch protection for local boards of education facing takeover. It is protection as well, the majority said, for citizens who elect the boards and for the tradition of local, political control.
"As we noted previously, in simplest terms, the training provision represents the legislature's intent that, in the rare event that a local board of education should be reconstituted, reconstitution would occur in a methodical, deliberate and transparent manner," the majority wrote. "This provides the local electors, local board and other citizens of the state with notice of the process and the time frame in which reconstitution potentially could occur."
In a pointed dissent, Justice Richard Palmer wrote that the majority opinion is not supported by "a shred of evidence" and argued that it ignores a "recent sea change in public policy" in Connecticut in support of state intervention in "failing school districts." He said the elected Bridgeport board should be allowed to vote to waive training and dissolve itself.
"Today, the majority deals the school children of Bridgeport a major setback, striking down the state board's action without any legitimate basis for doing so," Palmer wrote.
Takeover supporters lined up behind the dissent, suggesting that the majority was impeding broad improvement to public education in Bridgeport by focusing on a legal technicality.
"It is clear that the status quo is unacceptable," Finch said. "I agree with Justice Palmer that today's decision, a narrow and technical ruling, is a setback to the schoolchildren of Bridgeport. However, I remain committed to work with the governor, the legislature, our new superintendent and the existing board to help give Bridgeport kids a better education.
"As I said when I spoke to the State Board of Education last July in support of state intervention, 'Our school system is at a critical crossroads. It is time that we remove the politics from our children's education, address our schools' challenges head-on and begin to pursue a long-term solution to improving our schools.' Every decision we make should be about our children's future."
A top Finch aide said Bridgeport was exploring all options — legal and political — to give the mayor's office greater control over the city's schools. Finch already has proposed rewriting the city charter to allow the mayor to appoint school board members. The aide said the city also is working with constitutional lawyers in the state, the General Assembly, and the governor's office to find the best solution.
Robert Trefry, the current president of the Bridgeport board, said, "I'm disappointed, but you know, we knew from the beginning that this could happen." Trefry, of Fairfield, is one of three of seven appointed board members who live outside Bridgeport.
Paul Vallas, the interim superintendent in Bridgeport who was hired by the new, appointed board, said the Supreme Court decision will not "affect what we are doing – our work product or our progress.
"I remain very optimistic that this district is going to make a lot of progress," he said. "I believe the school district will have one of the most dynamic school improvement plans in the country."
Joseph J. Vrabely Jr., a member of the State Board of Education who said he opposed the takeover because there was no training, said he is now concerned that the Supreme Court decision could undermine efforts to improve the city's schools.
Even the court recognized the potential disruptive effect of its decision. It returned the case to Superior Court, where the state takeover was challenged last year, and directed the trial court to schedule a special school board election.
Last November, after the state replaced the elected board, the terms of four elected members of the old board expired. Since there was no longer an elected board in Bridgeport, there was no need to schedule an election for the expired seats.
The Supreme Court ordered the new, appointed board to remain in office until a special election takes place and its results are certified.
"The trial court shall direct that the seven current members of the reconstituted board remain in office until the special election has been completed," the court said. "At that time, the trial court shall reinstate the five members of the local board whose terms of office have not expired, to serve along with the four newly elected members."
The Malloy administration's proposed legal fix for the Bridgeport takeover amounts to two sentences inserted halfway through a 163-page package of education reforms. It targets the situation in Bridgeport particularly by validating any board take over after July 1, 2010, regardless of whether there was training.
Edmund H. Mahony and Kathleen Megan
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