A corporate reform coup d'etat in Bridgeport

By Norm Pattis, the attorney who litigated this case, cross-posted from his blog.

An Open Letter to the Connecticut General Assembly In re: Bridgeport’s Schools

A call came in moments ago. Mayor Bill Finch and his aides are busy at work in Hartford, lobbying lawmakers to pass legislation retroactively justifying the disbanding of the elected school board in Bridgeport. The governor’s men are also at work. Just yesterday. the State Supreme Court told the governor and the city they broke the law with this bloodless coup. Undettered, they now want lawmakers to change the law.

Attached is an open letter to the General Assembly. If you care about local control and the right to vote, email it to your state Senator and House member. I’m told a full-court press was on to pass the bill today. The effort failed. But tomorrow it will continue.

Dear Friends:

You are going to be strong-armed and cajoled this week by Gov. Dannel Malloy and Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch. You will be told to act on a special piece of legislation necessary to save the children of Bridgeport. The governor’s lawyers will tell you that all that is necessary is a slight alteration in existing law to tidy up an oversight. “It’s no big deal,” they will say. “Help us help the children.”

Don’t be fooled. This is a power-grab which, if blessed, will give the state license to take over the school board in every city. The razor you use to shave tomorrow is the very tool the governor wants you to use to slice your own throat.

Do I exaggerate? Consider the following facts the governor and Mayor Finch will not tell you.

Just before the close of business on Friday July 1, 2011, the Bridgeport school board sent notice to all members of the board that it was to vote on disbanding itself the next business day, July 5, 2011, at 5:00 p.m. This move was planned for months by members of the governor’s staff, Mayor Finch, former Superintendent Ramos and six members of the board. Not surprisingly, the measure passed 6-3. Board members who felt they could not do their job did not have the disgnity to quit in order to make room for the competent and committed; they jumped ship.

The next day, the state board of education voted to replace the elected board with appointees. These appointees have interesting affiliations; some have big-money hedge-fund connections and associations with the money generated by the Walmart stores. Mayor Finch undoubtedly hoped that if corporations felt the schools were well-run, they’d ante up money. It’s not a bad idea. It just isn’t what either the city charter or state law had in mind.

Lawmakers acted under a provision of state law that gives the state the power to take over a school board in districts that fail to meet state education standards. This is a reflection of the desire to show the federal government we should receive a full allotment of the funds available to us under the No Child Left Behind Act. The governor wants to forcefeed you federal carrots, too.

There is no denying the Bridgeport schools are in crisis. So are schools in Hartford, Waterbury, Stamford and many other cities. Bridgeport was a test case. If outside money could destroy the vote there, why what stops this from happening elsewhere?

But here’s the rub: We could turn the schools over to the Koch brothers or to Donald Trump, we could pave the hallways with gold, we could buy each student a diamond studded Rolex, and it would not change the underlying fact that what causes poor performance in the schools is urban distress. Do you want better performance in school? Then provide adequate housing, employment opportunities, safe streets.

Yielding control of the schools to corporate interests does not address underlying social issues. It is merely a means of permitting outsiders to decide what is best for our children. Do we teach children the values of a republic and citizenship by telling their parents they are too stupid to govern their own schools? Does Walmart know best? Yes, a privately run school might yield a better class of clerks, but schools have traditionally served as engines of democracy. We teach values there, too. What value the vote?

The governor’s chief legal counsel urges you to “fix” a bill your colleagues considered carefully years ago. They tucked a measure deep into a 163-pate reform bill hoping you would not notice it, much like a guilty man rubs foreign lipstick from his collar as he walks in the door. Now that the offending stain is in plain view that want you to believe it is your lips left the telltale mark. They want you to eliminate a requirement that the state offer locally elected boards training before resorting to the extreme measure of a bloodless coup.

Did you know that this past November there was no vote in Bridgeport for school board seats that fell vacant? That is because the state cancelled the election. Is this what you want? Why stop at school boards, governor? If you and your experts truly know best, then why not disband the House and Senate, too? What’s a little fascism in the service of the public good? Trust the governor. Hell, why not dispense with the next general election for governor while we’re at it?

Resist the siren’s seductive song.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the State of Connecticut voted 6-1 telling the governor and the City of Bridgeport they broke a law you passed in seating a board of appointees, ousting elected officers, and cancelling a vote. Today, Mayor Finch and aides spent the day pressing your flesh, pooh-poohing the Court’s decision. You were offered quids pro quo, a little something in exchange for your support. Today lawyers for the state board of education and for the City of Bridgeport promised to fight this decision to the bitter end. An illegal and unelected board governs the Bridgeport schools, and not one of the apologists for this coup shows the slightest bit of shame.

All this lobbying went on today while a board put in place by unlawful means continues to sit. Elected officials are locked out of their offices. Does the Supreme Court find this unjustified and unlawful? Never mind! We’ll fix it in the Legislature!

No one says it, but let’s face what is really happening here. The power-elite, largely white and upper-middle-class, has decided a community of struggling people of color can’t manage its own affairs. You are asked to sign on.

Ask Gov. Malloy and Mayor Finch to show you the briefs filed in the Supreme Court in this case. Look at the legislative history. Read the words of your colleagues who worried that the state might too easily seek to make a mockery of home rule.

Mayor Finch and his pals tried today to push their reform bill through your ranks. They failed. They are now setting their sights on a vote within the next couple of days. Don’t give them yours.

The stock market hit 13,000 yesterday. The monied class is doing well. Are your constituents? Are you prepared to tell them money knows best? That we ought simply to trust the governor’s experts?

What ails Bridgeport won’t be solved with a quick fix, a stroke of your pens. Instead of asking you how to make stronger cities, the governor and Bridgeport’s mayor are asking you to help kill civic pride and a sense of community.

I represent two ordinary people who ran for office and won. Like you, they had a vision of a better future, and they staked all to claim it. Now they are out of office because their colleagues walked away from their offices. Is that the model you want to endorse?

Is it?

You will be promised this quick fix is fine and dandy, that it is a thing of no consequence. But understand this: The Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutional issues raised in challenging this coup. It did not rule because it did not need to: the state looked at the law you drafted and figured it could slip a fast one by when no one was looking. They got caught.

Changing a rule to suit the governor will just put the matter back in court. A legislative decision to retroactively justify the taking of public offices from elected officials will simply land the state in federal court, where, I am bold enough to predict, the other side of the governor’s hind quarters will then be kicked, a species of symmetry I, for one, find delightful.

Send Daniel Malloy a message: You don’t build better schools from the top down. You build them from the bottom up. Teaching students that votes can be stolen is the last thing they should be learning from their elected officials.

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