Schools lawsuit in hands of top court

Published on November 6, 2011 by

The right of the people of Bridgeport to elect the members of the Bridgeport Board of Education was argued before the Connecticut Supreme Court on Thursday, Oct. 27.

The court was considering three cases brought by former Board of Education members and community activists. The suits challenge the legality of the July 6 decision by the state Board of Education to reconstitute the Bridgeport Board of Education.

Following the 5-4 vote by the State Board of Education, then-acting Commissioner of Education George Coleman dissolved the elected Bridgeport Board of Education and appointed a seven-member body. This action was done pursuant to a recently enacted state statute.

The action by the state Board of Education followed a flurry of activity in Bridgeport over the July 4th weekend. On Friday, July 1, at 4:52 p.m., the Bridgeport Board of Education’s secretary, Dolores Fuller, filed a notice of a special July 5 meeting to be held at Cesar Batalla elementary school at 6 p.m. At that meeting six members of the elected board voted to ask the state Board of Education to dissolve the elected board and replace it with an appointed body.

The six members, Chairman Barbara Bellinger, Fuller, Leticia Colon, Nereyda Robles, Thomas Cunningham and Thomas Mulligan, claimed that the board was “dysfunctional” and could not carry out its duties and responsibilities.

Three members of the board, Maria Pereira, Sauda Baraka and Bobby Simmons, voted against the motion and made several efforts to amend or postpone consideration of the resolutions. Each attempt was defeated on a 6-3 vote.

Pereira, Simmons and Baraka all brought suit following the State Board of Education’s July 6 actions. They claim that the action of the state Board of Education was illegal and was contrary to several requirements in that statute which they believe are a prerequisite to the dissolution of any elected municipal board of education. The language of the particular law in question states that “the board shall not grant such authority to the commissioner unless the board has required the local or regional board of education to complete the training” as described in the law.

The three board members maintain that they were not provided with state mandated training of any kind and therefore, the state board was without authority when it authorized the interim commissioner to reconstitute the local board.

In their suits, the three board members also question the constitutionality of the state statute permitting the state Board of Education to dissolve and nullify a board that has been elected by the voters of a municipality or a regional school district.

The cases were originally brought in Bridgeport Superior Court and were transferred by the Bridgeport presiding judge to the Waterbury Superior Court, Complex Litigation Docket. In an effort to expedite the matter, rather than submitting the case to a Superior Court judge for a hearing, the parties agreed to a “stipulation of facts.” The stipulation of facts, along with several questions of law, were submitted to the Connecticut Supreme Court for a decision.

During oral argument on Oct. 27, several justices sharply questioned Assistant Attorney General Mark Kohler and the city of Bridgeport’s attorney John Bohannon. Justices Lubby Harper, Ian McLaughlin and Peter Zarella, directed pointed questions at the attorneys, challenging them to justify the unprecedented action, which removed an elected board of education under the new statute. The justices were skeptical of the state’s and city’s claims that a mandatory training in the statute could be “waived” by a local board of education.

At one point, Harper asked Kohler, “Where does a local board get the authority to waive a statutory mandate?” Justice Harper volunteered the answer to his own question when he clearly stated that there is no waiver provision in the language of the statute.

Norm Pattis, the attorney representing two of the board members, Pereira and Simmons, at one point quipped, “We call ourselves the Constitution State, not the coup d‘ etat state.” Pattis told the justices that the statute had been violated by the state Board of Education, and that the elected board members should be restored to their rightful positions.

Although he argued that the court need not decide the constitutional claims in light of the clear violation of the statute, Pattis maintained that the “Home Rule” provision of the Connecticut Constitution had been violated by the actions of the city and of the state.

The appointed board composed of Chairman Robert Trefy, an Easton resident, and six other individuals appointed by former Interim Commissioner Coleman, also filed a brief in this matter. However, attorney Steven Ecker, who was retained to represent the board, did not participate in the oral argument.

Attorneys representing the ousted board members, Pattis and Josephine Miller, were both encouraged by the oral argument and the thrust of the court’s questions. While they exercised restraint in predicting an outcome, both of the attorneys appeared confident that the court recognized the events as an outrage and would reinstate their clients to their elected positions.

Certainly the question posed by Chief Justice Chase Rogers as the arguments were closing, “What happens if we reverse this?” provides a glimpse into what the justices may be discussing when they meet in conference to decide this case.