Judge rules Bridgeport superintendent not eligible to run school district

A Superior Court judge Friday ruled that the superintendent of the state’s largest school system is ineligible to run Bridgeport Public Schools.

“The court orders Paul Vallas be removed from his office,” Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis ruled Friday afternoon.

Vallas — who was introduced to the Bridgeport Board of Education by state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor — said during a phone interview Friday night he plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.

“Nothing changes,” he said. “It’s not like the decision results in any immediate action. We are going to appeal.”

State law requires all superintendents in Connecticut to be certified by the State Department of Education, which requires that a candidate has a master’s degree, 30 credits in courses related to becoming a superintendent and eight years of teaching or administrative experience. These requirements can be waived for up to one year by the state’s education commissioner while the candidate completes an “educational leadership program” approved by the State Board of Education.

In April, the state board approved an independent study created for Vallas by the University of Connecticut as a valid program. But the judge said Friday that the short, independent study he completed in May at UConn was merely a simulation.

“There is no doubt that Vallas received preferential treatment,” the judge wrote in her 27-page decision.

Vallas is in his 17th month of leading the 21,000-student school system.

The judge also noted that Vallas lacked the required prerequisites to enroll in the regular UConn program in the first place, and that such an independent study hadn’t been approved for anyone else in the last decade. Additionally, the university’s governing board had never approved an independent study program.

“Ultimately, the course standards were reduced,” the judge wrote. “The court accepts Vallas’ testimony that the work, although done over the course of 10 weeks while fulfilling his employment as acting superintendent, could have been completed in a week.”

The judge also ruled that Pryor, the state’s education commissioner, improperly waived the certification requirements.

“The evidence submitted at trial established that Pryor did not adequately vet Vallas when evaluating whether he was ‘exceptionally qualified’ because Pryor was unable to provide specific details of that process in his testimony,” the judge wrote.

Pryor blasted the decision in a statement.

“We disagree with and are disappointed by the court’s decision. Paul Vallas’ superintendency –- affirmed by Bridgeport’s democratically elected school board -– has brought to the city invaluable expertise acquired over Mr. Vallas’ previous 15 years as Superintendent of three major urban districts.  We support Bridgeport’s decision to pursue next steps in the legal process,” he said.

It is unclear what the ruling means for Vallas’ three-year contract with the Bridgeport school board.  Vallas, who is being paid $234,000 a year, has led the Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans school systems.

Carmen Lopez, a Bridgeport resident and former judge who filed the lawsuit, called the decision a “triumph.”

“We are still a nation of laws, and not of men, which I am sure comes as  a shock to Paul Vallas and Stefan Pryor. The message of this decision is simple — no one is above the law,” she said.

“Fortunately, when the executive branch is arrogant and unresponsive, citizens can still have redress in the courts in order to check unrestrained abuses of power,” Lopez said.

This is the second time in the last two school years that the state’s involvement in the governance of a school district has been overturned by a judge.  After the state ousted the former, locally elected Bridgeport Board of Education, the state Supreme Court ruled that that takeover was illegal because the proper steps were not followed.

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