Lesson learned: state won’t intervene in Bridgeport school fight

One year after the state Supreme Court ruled that the State Board of Education overstepped when it intervened in Bridgeport’s school system, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor has declined to get formally involved in a local dispute.

In dismissing a request from the state’s largest teachers’ union to intervene in Connecticut’s largest school district, Pryor wrote to the leader of the Bridgeport Education Association, “First, you must show that you have exhausted your remedies at the local level.”

The complaint alleges that the superintendent in Bridgeport, Paul Vallas, is shutting out teachers and parents from taking part in making important decisions by limiting the role the School Governance Councils are playing in helping to make budgetary, hiring and strategic plans for the 21,000-student district. The councils were created by state law three years ago as a way to ensure that parents and teachers play a role in improving schools.

Union leadership said Vallas has displayed a “flagrant disregard” of these councils.

But when dismissing the complaint, Pryor wrote that state law and regulations are clear that the dispute must be formally brought before the local board of education before the state has jurisdiction.

“Because your complaint does not show that you have attempted to resolve the complaint with the Board, I am dismissing it. Notwithstanding that fact, I take seriously the allegations you have raised,” Pryor wrote.

Pryor, who worked alongside Vallas in Haiti and Chile as those nations rebuilt school systems after devastating earthquakes, invited the union leader to sit down and talk about the issue with him and Vallas.

The leader of the Connecticut Education Association said that the issue is not over.

“We are going to take whatever steps are necessary to get this resolved because we think it is extremely important,” said Mark Waxenberg, the executive director of the union. “If this is not taken seriously or welcome [by the local board] then we will be back before the state for it to deal with it.”

Waxenberg said the relationship between the teachers and Vallas “at times is very difficult. … It comes down to how much do you believe the teachers should have a voice in the reform initiatives taking place in your district. If you treat them like small children then there are going to be problems and difficulties. If you treat them as partners where everyone is accountable to one another, we are going to move forward. … Unfortunately, the former is occurring rather than the latter at times and more often than not.”

Last year, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state inappropriately intervened in Bridgeport when it replaced the locally elected board with a state-appointed board. That 6-1 ruling determined that the requirement that the local school board receive training first before the state intervened had not been completed.