In a case that could pave the way for state education officials to replace local school boards in other low-performing districts as they did in Bridgeport, justices on the Connecticut Supreme Court were told Thursday there is no standard the state follows when determining whether to intervene in a troubled district or leave it alone.
“I assume that Bridgeport is not the only school in the state that is failing,” said Justice Peter T. Zarella. “Is it just everybody’s at risk and it’s an arbitrary decision?”
Mark F. Kohler, an assistant attorney general defending the State Board of Education’s decision, acknowledged there is no standard except that the district fail to meet federal testing benchmarks for two consecutive years. That would mean 34 districts are currently eligible for state intervention, which is about 20 percent of districts in the state.
SBE Chairman Allan Taylor said during an interview none of these other districts have approached him yet asking for state intervention.
Regardless, Kohler said the law is straightforward on the role of the SDE in this.
“They had the authority to act,” he said.
Bridgeport’s board was ousted in July in a split vote by the state board, following the request of Mayor Bill Finch and six of the local board members.
“Parents were told their votes don’t count,” said Norm Pattis, a lawyer for board members that did not support having their positions replaced with state-appointed members, some of whom don’t live in Bridgeport. “What’s a little fascism among friends as long as it serves the children”
A key dispute in the takeover of the state’s largest school district is whether the state can interfere in matters delegated as local responsibilities in the state constitution. Also at issue is whether local elected board members can turn over their seats to the SDE before taking training to “improve their operational efficiency and effectiveness as leaders of their districts’ improvement plans,” as required under state law. The state argues board members have the right to waive this requirement.
But plaintiffs’ lawyer Michelle Mount argued that the board members could not simply ignore state law. “They just decided to abdicate their duties. They should have resigned.”
Pattis summarized their actions a little more bluntly.
“Wam bam, thank you man. The voters of Bridgeport are too stupid,” he said.
If the court reverses the state takeover and reinstates the board, it’s not clear what the effect would be: Four of the nine members’ terms are set to expire at the end of the year and the election for their seat would have been in 11 days.
“What would happen? Would there be an election? Would there not be an election?” asked Chief Justice Chase T. Roberts. Lawyers for both sides had no answer.