Bridgeport: playground of the powerful and privileged

Published on October 28, 2011 by

It is well-established in our representative democracy, that the power of government is shared among three equal branches; the Judicial, the Legislative and the Executive.

Fearful as the drafters of our federal and state constitutions were of the abuse of power by a tyrannical ruler, and fully aware of the human tendency to control and dominate, they determined that the power of government should be divided among the branches so that no one branch could gain absolute control. They wrote a system of checks and balances into those documents.

They knew that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The matter of the takeover of the Bridgeport school district by a State Board of Education heavily influenced by outside forces was argued Thursday before the Connecticut Supreme Court in Hartford.

The Judicial Branch is being asked to decide the legality of the actions of the state Board of Education, an agency of the executive branch. Acting through a 5-4 majority, the State Board of Education voted to dismantle, or as the politically correct would say, reconstitute, the local elected Board of Education, and replace it with a bureaucratically appointed board.

The action was taken pursuant to General Statutes Section 10-223e(h), a law recently enacted by the legislative branch. This law allows the State Board of Education to “reconstitute” a local board of education, as long as training to improve the local board’s effectiveness was provided by the state and an action plan was in place for the school district to follow and the state board to monitor. The parties agree that no training was provided, nor an action plan ever put in place.

By this move, the State Board of Education effectively nullified the right of Bridgeport electors to select our own local board of education.

Briefs have been filed by the various plaintiffs who are challenging the takeover action. Both the plaintiffs’ brief, and that filed by the Attorney General on behalf of the State Board of Education have framed the legal issues that the court must decide.

Those issues involve statutory construction and constitutional rights. The process known as statutory construction requires the court to determine the intent of the legislative branch in passing the law and to give effect to that intent when it considers the facts of the case before it.

Since the plaintiffs have also claimed that this statute violates several provisions of the state constitution, the Supreme Court will also be conducting a constitutional inquiry.

The court will hear argument and announce a decision at a later time.

The members of the unelected board of education, referred to as the Reconstituted Board, have filed a brief with the court. This board is led by Robert Trefy, an Easton resident. It will be remembered that one of the first official acts of this newly appointed board was to hire an attorney with public funds, to contest claims brought against them as individuals. The claims of the plaintiffs challenge their right to hold the offices to which they were not elected. The claims against them (quo warranto) have nothing to do with their duties, responsibilities or performance as members of the reconstituted board of education.

A few days ago, non-parties to the action received permission from the Supreme Court to file a brief as “friends of the court,” or “amicus curiae” in support of the takeover. These non-parties are the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, (BRBC), led by Trumbull’s Paul Timpanelli, Bridgeport Public Education Fund (BPEF), led by Marge Hiller, and a recently established Bridgeport education reform group, known as EXCEL. These “friends of the court” are represented by the firm of Pullman and Comley, the firm in which City of Bridgeport Bond Counsel, John Stafstrom is a partner.

Similar to other Bridgeport residents who are still trying to comprehend how it was possible for so many out-of-towners, including Meghan Lowney of Fairfield, an employee of Steve Mandell, the Greenwich hedge fund billionaire, to secretly act in concert with members of the governor’s office, the mayor’s office and the State Board of Education to, literally overnight, overthrow a democratically elected local board of education, I am eagerly waiting for the day of legal arguments to arrive. In order to be prepared to follow the arguments of the lawyers and the questions of the justices, I have taken some time to read the briefs of the parties, as well as the brief of the “friends of the court.”

The observations which follow are not necessarily made as a person who has received legal training, but rather as the daughter of a mom and dad who arrived in Bridgeport from Puerto Rico over 50 years ago in search of the American dream. In order to try and realize that dream, they worked in factories to support their two daughters and make sure that they had an education to lift them out of poverty and into a better life. While my dad worked in the factory at GE, not in the corporate headquarters, he cared about the city in which he chose to raise his family.

The legal documents filed by the reconstituted board and the “friends of the court,” in my view, are disrespectful of the working poor.

Unlike the plaintiffs and the attorney general, the brief filed by the unelected board largely eschewed legal arguments or case law analysis. Instead, the brief involves statistical compilations, spiced with polemics. The brief of the “friends of the court” echoes the sentiments of the unelected board. Indeed, the brief is in support of the unelected board.

Both briefs boil down to one simple belief: “We the distinguished corporate executives, business leaders, and suburban activists, are here to save you, because you, the residents and taxpayers of the City of Bridgeport cannot govern yourselves and are in need of saving.”

While the members of the reconstituted board may operate under the belief that their motives are pure, they have no political agenda and “only want to help,” their paternalism and condescension reverberate through the pages of their brief. They brandish their resumes for the court to appreciate, describing themselves as “present and former executives of Bridgeport area companies and an education scholar.” They may view themselves as enlightened progressives and forward thinking individuals, but the reality is quite different.

Although, the appointed board also counts as members, a Latino parent activist, who was included as an afterthought by the Interim Commissioner of Education following the Latino community’s outcry of outrage for the lack of a representative, and a member of the African-American clergy, who also happens to be the campaign treasurer of the mayor, as well as an African-American female involved with charter schools, the imbalance in the power structure of this board leaves no doubt as to who is running that show.

The picture that emerges from their brief is an elitist mind set of privilege and power which seeks to turn back the clock to the “bad old days,” which Americans should have long ago consigned to the proverbial trash heap of history.

Perhaps unconsciously they urge us to return to a time in our history when a poll tax served as a barrier to the exercise of voting rights, the voting franchise was restricted to white male property owners, and literacy tests camouflaged racism and denied access to the voting booths to African-American citizens.

Their briefs seem to envision an America where “the good people” do good for the less fortunate, but don’t permit them to share equally in the governing process.

What did our State Board of Education just do by the narrowest of margins? They drew a line synonymous with the municipal borders of the City of Bridgeport. Those outside the line, to the east in Stratford, to the north in Easton and Trumbull and to the west in Fairfield, will all vote for their members of their local boards of education on Nov. 8.

Those inside the line, two-thirds of whom are African-American or Hispanic, and many of whom constitute the working poor, will be denied that right of self-government which their suburban neighbors will freely exercise. The area inside the line, the City of Bridgeport, is a designated area for those residing safely outside of it, to play, experiment and dispense charity. Similar to a playground and a laboratory, Bridgeport has been used by outsiders for many reasons, not the least of which is to reap financial rewards for practicing kindness to others who may be a little less fortunate.

If these actions would not be tolerated in Meghan Lowney’s Fairfield, Bob Trefy’s Easton, or Paul Timpanelli’s Trumbull, then they cannot be tolerated in the City of Bridgeport.

We can only hope that the Supreme Court will function as a court of justice, not merely as a court of law, and the wrongs to which we have been subjected will be righted.