Connecticut Superior Court Judge Orders Vallas Removed from Superintendency
Then comes Analysis: A Quo Warranto from the judge.
During the closing arguments Vallas argued that the State Board of Education has the authority and discretion to define key terms and phrases in the statute, such as "school leadership program" and, therefore the court may not do so without engaging in a political question.
There's a whole lot of legalese, which boils down to this: In Connecticut Statute 10-157 stipulates that an individual must obtain a certification before he or she may serve as a superintendent. If an individual lacks such certification he or she may obtain a waiver that lets the individual serve for "probationary period not to exceed one year" and requires that during this period the individual "shall successfully complete a school leadership program offered by a public or private instruction of higher learning approved by the State Board of Education."
The statute does not define either "probationary period" or "school leadership program." The court was satisfied with Vallas's probationary period, leaving "school leadership program." But the program proved to be the sticking point.
Here's the court:
The judge noted that the "executive leadership program" offered by the Neag School of Education, a thirteen month program. Vallas argued that it is improper for the court to look to the executive leadership program as a standard by which to evaluated whether the course was a "program" within the meaning of statute because 10-157 is intended to circumvent the certification requirements. And so on. But the court's conclusion is not that the three credit course fails to qualify as a "school leadership program" on the ground that it was not the "executive leadership program"; instead, the executive leadership program serves as a separate example of a "program" at the very institution at which Vallas took and completed the course.
School's Out for Vallas
Connecticut Post June 28, 2013
by Daniel Tepfer
During his short time at the helm of Bridgeport's failing education system, Superintendent Paul Vallas was both hailed as savior and demonized as an arrogant, inflexible dictator.
Now school's out for summer -- and for Vallas.
In a decision expected to rock the city's education system, a Superior Court judge Friday ordered Vallas removed from his job.
"This could be disastrous for our education system," said Thomas Mulligan, a city Board of Education member and local lawyer. "If Superintendent Vallas is unable to continue serving, this will mean Bridgeport will have gone through four superintendents in a three-year period --John Ramos, Vallas, the interim superintendent who replaces Vallas and a permanent superintendent."
No interim superintendent had been picked as of Friday night.
Although the Board of Education voted Monday to elevate Vallas from acting to permanent status, Judge Barbara Bellis ruled that Vallas is not qualified under state law to serve as superintendent.
In her 27-page decision, the judge agreed with critics of Vallas that he had taken a "sham" course to become qualified to serve as superintendent.
"The evidence was overwhelming that from the start, efforts were made to accommodate the appointment of Vallas as superintendent of the Bridgeport public school system at every level," the judge ruled. "The court orders that Paul Vallas be removed from his office."
"Thank heavens we had a forum and justice has prevailed," said city activist Carmen Lopez. "This was not a technicality, this was a serious matter."
The ruling comes just shy of the two-year anniversary of the state's takeover of the Bridgeport Board of Education and the ousting of the elected board, which was later reversed by the state Supreme Court. Vallas, 60, was appointed to the job in December 2011, and he started Jan. 3, 2012.
"I am going to continue to do what I have for nearly 20 years and focus on improving schools for students desperately in need of a better education," Vallas said in an email sent Friday night. "That has to remain our focus despite any other distractions as our students deserve nothing less. I'd like to thank my staff for their hard work in bringing the school system back from the edge of bankruptcy, laying the ground work for improved and sustained academic quality, and for always keeping the best interests of our students as their number one priority, regardless of the challenges."
A number of Vallas' supporters reacted with shocked surprise at the court ruling.
"Only in Bridgeport would the likes of Mr. Paul Vallas not be qualified to serve as superintendent," lamented Board of Education President the Rev. Kenneth Moales. "This ruling crosses the line; Mr. Vallas has proven his commitment to the children of this city."
Moales said a rally is planned in support of Vallas for Monday night. "This ruling will be appealed," he vowed.
"We anticipate a reversal so Superintendent Paul Vallas can continue his great work on behalf of the students of Bridgeport," said Mayor Bill Finch. "We disagree entirely with the substance of the judge's decision. We believe it goes against the great weight of facts presented at trial and the applicable law."
Lopez, a retired Superior Court judge, had sued Vallas, claiming he had not taken the school leadership program required by the state to become a superintendent for the state's largest city.
Vallas, who never took a graduate education course, was appointed last year by state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor to the $234,000 job.
During a hearing before the judge earlier this week, Pryor testified he is a friend of Vallas and was impressed with Vallas' work at other school districts, including New Orleans.
But Vallas lacked a state leadership certificate to serve as a superintendent, a certificate that at the time could only be obtained by completing a 13-month program at the University of Connecticut.
On April 15, the state Board of Education approved an abbreviated program -- essentially an independent study under the supervision of UConn Professor Robert Villanova -- for Vallas to take instead.
Villanova testified that while the course called for classroom sessions, seminars and technology-assisted discussions, Vallas met with him twice for about four hours and submitted six papers. The technology-assisted discussions were telephone calls.
"Vallas and his witnesses were, at times, less than candid with the court, Pryor when questioned regarding Vallas' departure from New Orleans, Vallas when asked to review documents to refresh his recollection, and Villanova with regard to the flex extended to Vallas," the judge stated. "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 was also critical of the state Board of Education's decision to validate the course Vallas took.
"The state Board of Education approved what they believed was a UConn-approved program with requirements of classes, seminars and technology-assisted discussions that simply did not take place," she stated.
"This ruling is unfortunate for the Bridgeport school system and its 20,000 students," said Maria Zambrano, executive director of Excel Bridgeport, which has been supportive of the changes Vallas installed in his short time here.
Unless the city challenges the ruling, which Zambrano would support, "I would want the mayor, the City Council and the Board of Education to do what they can to keep Vallas," she said.
In the meantime, Zambrano said there has to be a conversation with the community to determine what qualifications are needed to lead this troubled school district.
"Is it just a piece of paper ... or a track record of results for improving educational outcome of its students? I believe it to be the latter," she said.
The split on the board and the hostility (between the five Democrats and the four aligned with the Working Families Party) will make it difficult to attract a top-notch superintendent, Mulligan said.
In the meantime, he believes Moales, the board's president, needs to call an emergency meeting. He said it will cost $100,000 or more to put together a search committee to find a new superintendent.
Bobby Simmons, another board member often aligned with the Working Families group, said the judge's ruling is an important lesson for students that government can't circumvent the law.
"I would request that we conduct a special meeting once we have had the chance to read the judge's decision," Simmons said.
Staff writers Michael P. Mayko and Linda Conner Lambeck contributed to this report.
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Judge Barbara Bellis and Daniel Tepfer
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