State authorizes takeover of Bridgeport schools

By a single vote, the State Board of Education on Wednesday gave Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch the “miracle” he says is needed to turn around the troubled schools in the state’s largest city: a takeover by the state of Connecticut.

“The status quo in the Bridgeport Public School System is not OK,” Finch told the state board during a two-hour meeting. “We don’t have anywhere to go …  and that is why we are here.”


Mayor Bill Finch (l) asking state board to take over city schools

This state intervention means a new school board will be named, and their first task will be to cut 7 percent from a $233 million proposed budget. That very situation is what exacerbated tensions among the current nine board members and led to an impasse on passing a budget for the fiscal year that began last week.

“There is something wrong in Bridgeport. … I don’t know how we say ‘no’ to this request,” said Allan Taylor, the chairman of the state board. “I think we have an obligation.”

“I have never seen a more dysfunctional, disagreeable, clashing, hostile situation,” said Tom Mulligan, a Bridgeport board member. “This board cannot achieve its purpose. … It is an emergency situation.”

And on Wednesday, members of the state board agreed, voting to grant the state commissioner of Education the power to appoint a new board to manage the 20,000-student district. But the board was split, voting 5-4 in favor of intervention.

“It is the role of this board is to place more scrutiny on failing schools,” said Stephen P. Wright, a member of the state Board of Education from Trumbull, a suburb next to Bridgeport. “They are asking for our help. We need to give them some measure of help.”

But about a dozen Bridgeport parents and voters traveled to Hartford with a clear message for the state board: Stay out. They said the residents elected the current nine-member board and throwing them out of office is troubling.

“It is outrageous to me that my rights as a registered voter are being taken away. It is not fair,” Shavonne Davis, a mother of five children in Bridgeport schools.

The takeover is a reflection of a board that some say is dysfunctional beyond its inability to agree on a budget. The problem facing the current school board, the delegation from Bridgeport in Hartford said, is there are three board members that are very disruptive to the process.

Barbara Bellinger, president of the Bridgeport board, said while she has the majority votes she needs to pass important issues facing the schools, three members are able to delay business because a two-thirds vote is needed to go into executive session or to pass anything if one member is absent.

Hearing those comments, one mother from Bridgeport in the audience yelled out, “That’s called transparency.”

And with an election just three months away for four of the current board members, the Bridgeport delegation said they are not confident any election will solve this problem.

“I do not think the election will change the situation,” Mulligan said.

The uncertainty of their budget is nothing new to Bridgeport schools, as it has faced major deficits to cope with flat-funding from both the state and the city in recent years and is the plaintiff on a pending class-action lawsuit against the state for its funding levels.

Patricia Luke, a member of the state board voting against the intervention, said the problem isn’t the current board, it is that the chaos facing them now is a direct result of being underfunded.

“How is reconstituting your board going to change those problems? You don’t have enough money,” she asked. “It’s not going to solve anything, except you will probably pass a budget for this school year.”

But Taylor, who witnessed firsthand the state takeover of Hartford schools years ago, said that’s exactly was this intervention is aimed at getting a budget passed, as well as other issues long-term. Taylor said this move does not make the state any more responsible for the deficit facing Bridgeport schools than it was before state intervention.

The new board will be in place for three years and Acting Education Commissioner George Coleman said he believes it will be made up of five members.

“I am not sure the solutions will be immediately evident,” he said, adding he will name new members shortly. “Certainly we want people who have the time and commitment.”

Bridgeport is not new to state oversight. Its financial problems led to a state panel taking control of the city’s budgeting in 1988. In 1991, the city made national news with an attempt to file for bankruptcy protection.