The future of Paul Vallas’s leadership of Bridgeport’s schools is in the hands of the State Supreme Court.
“It ends here. We know there is nowhere else to go,” Norm Pattis, the attorney requesting Vallas’s ouster, told the justices Monday.
A lower court judge ruled this spring that Vallas is unqualified to run Bridgeport’s schools — the state’s largest public school system — because he has not completed a valid leadership program.
At issue is whether the ad hoc work Vallas completed at the University of Connecticut meets the standard set in state law that requires educators to complete a “school leadership program” in order to become a superintendent.
The plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit -– a retired Superior Court judge and a mother with four children in the Bridgeport schools –- say that Vallas’s work is not valid because it was minimal, not approved by the college’s dean or system’s governing board, or available to anyone else.
“This is a farce. This is a mockery of what the legislature intended… There should be standards,” Pattis said.
But during the hearing, which lasted just over an hour, several of the justices asked why it was up to them to decipher the caliber of the program and how it came to be.
“Doesn’t it make sense that the program should be customized?” asked Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers. The legislature “used no language. They left [the definition of program] undefined… It was approved by the State Board of Education. It doesn’t say it needs to be approved by” the college’s governing board.
Rep. Andy Fleischmann, the House chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, said he has no doubt that lawmakers left this decision to the State Board of Education for what qualifies as a “school leadership program.”
“The law doesn’t make any reference to existing leadership program. We gave the state board the discretion,” the Democrat from West Hartford said during an interview. “We are not trying to create any barriers. We are trying to knock them down.”
The attorney representing Vallas, Steven D. Ecker, argued that if people are unhappy with the program Vallas completed, the proper way to seek a remedy is by filing a complaint with the State Board of Education.
“The most important thing the court can do is not act,” Ecker told the justices.
“The trial court’s ruling that the defendant did not complete a ‘school leadership program’ … encroached upon the authority of the [State Board of Education] and the Commissioner, respectively, to make those very determinations. These rulings raise significant concerns about the proper judicial role in reviewing such executive decisions,” the attorney general’s office wrote.
But Pattis said more is necessary than the state education commissioner’s “giving a wink and a nod” to get his longtime friend Vallas certification to land the job.
“The courts are presumably there for a reason… What other person gets to call up the state of Connecticut and say, ‘I would like to design my own program’,” he asked the six justices who heard the case in Hartford Monday. Justice Andrew McDonald, formerly the chief counsel for the governor, recused himself.
The justices face no deadline to rule on the case, but lawyers for both sides said the justices typically take three to six months.
“Right now I don’t have an instinct of how it’s going to go,” said Maria Pereira, a member of the Bridgeport school board and Vallas opponent.
As the leader of the Working Families Party of Bridgeport, Pereira has launched a backup plan so the local board of education can take back control of the 22,000-student school district from Vallas if the Supreme Court does not rule in her favor.
Previously the minority on the local school board, the Working Families Party won several Democratic Party endorsements in the recent primary. This win likely means the Working Families party will gain control of the school board in the coming election.
Vallas’s contract approved by the previous board runs through March 2016. If the new board terminates his contract, it must give him a year’s pay ($234,000) and provide him and his family with health insurance for three years.
This clear divide among some of the board members and Vallas, Ecker says, is proof that no program would have been good enough for qualify Vallas for the job.
“The plaintiffs weren’t particularly interested in making sure that Mr. Vallas mastered what he needed to master… They wanted him out. They were his opponents,” he said.
State Board of Education brief defending Vallas’s qualifications (Return to the article here.)
Plaintiff’s brief agruing that Vallas is not qualified (Return to the article here.)
Vallas contract to be the superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools (Return to article here.)