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SEE YOU IN COURT! - February 2010

February 1, 2010

The Nutmeg Board of Education is exploring every different way to save money as it struggles with the budget proposed for 2010-2011. To facilitate the process, Bob Bombast hosted an informal get-together at his house last month, and seven of the Board members were able to come and talk candidly about the challenges ahead.

“I have been looking through the proposed budget,” Penny Pincher started, “and I found that we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to transport students who don’t even attend the Nutmeg Public Schools. Let’s cut that right out of the budget.”

“No such luck, Penny,” Bob responded. “I think that we are required by State law to provide such transportation. You know the drill – unfunded mandates . . . .

“Actually we do get some state reimbursement,” interjected Mal Content, “not enough, of course. But I was also looking at the bus routes. We could still save a bunch of money by consolidating routes and requiring these students to walk a little more. Who of us didn’t have to walk a mile or two when we were in school?”

The Board members enthusiastically agreed to pare down these bus routes to reduce the district’s transportation costs. Bob was on the phone the next day with Mr. Superintendent, explaining the Board’s plan. Mr. Superintendent told Bob that such changes would be more trouble than they would be worth, but Bob pushed back, saying that the Board had already decided the matter. Reluctantly, Mr. Superintendent agreed to see what he could do. In consultation with the bus company, routes were redone, and the private school students were rerouted, with significant savings this year and even more projected for next year.

It didn’t take long before the complaints started pouring in. Polly Parent, mother of children in the first and fourth grades at St. Mary’s was particularly irate. At the Board meeting last week, she and twenty other parents showed up for Public Comment, and lambasted the Board for its actions. As the Board members sat there, Bob sent a text message to Polly and Mal, saying “Blah, Blah, Blah. Just stand firm. We can’t afford to back down now.”

The following week, Mr. Superintendent was shocked to receive twenty separate requests for transportation hearings, claiming that the transportation provided was not reasonable. He was even more shocked when Mr. Board Attorney told him that the Board would have to hold hearings on each of the parents’ complaints. Reluctantly, he sent an email to the Board members to inform them that they would have to hold all of these hearings within the next ten days. Bob promptly sent an email response to all, stating that the savings the Board was achieving more than justified the inconvenience of a few hearings. “Let’s start with Polly Parent,” he urged in his email. “Maybe a big fat ‘no’ to her will convince her followers to drop their claims.”


Does Bob have a good idea here? More generally, do the Board members really have to conduct all these hearings for private-school parents?

*        *        *

 

Bob has outdone himself, creating a problem for the Board that only an impartial panel could solve. But before we look at Bob’s actions, we should look at the issue more generally.

Transportation is part of the basic right of school accommodations. Boards of education are obligated to “provide for the transportation of children wherever transportation is reasonable and desirable.” In providing such services, school districts must plan routes and establish bus stops. The walking routes to such bus stops must be “reasonable” because students access such transportation by walking to the bus stops. Issues of distance and hazard must be considering in establishing such bus stops.

Under Section 10-281 of the General Statutes, school districts have similar obligations as to students who attend private, non-public schools: 

Any municipality or school district shall provide, for its children enrolled in any grade, from kindergarten to twelve, inclusive, attending nonpublic nonprofit schools therein, the same kind of transportation services provided for its children in such grades attending public schools when a majority of the children attending such a nonpublic school are residents of the state of Connecticut.

Significantly, boards of education must provide “the same kind of transportation services” as are provided to public school students. Here, the Board clearly violated that obligation by planning special, longer routes for the private school students.

The same statute provides that parents or guardians of such children denied reasonable transportation may challenge transportation decisions in the same manner that public school parent may challenge such decisions. First, they may request a hearing before the board of education, and, second, they may appeal any such board decision to a state-appointed hearing officer. Boards of education have some discretion in such matters; the state hearing officer must affirm the board’s decision unless it is “arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.” However, here, the actions of the Nutmeg Board would not survive even that standard of review.

In any event, the Nutmeg Board should not conduct any of the requested hearings because its misconduct here precludes its exercising such responsibilities. That misconduct began, of course, with the illegal meeting at Bob’s house. This gathering of a quorum of the Board should have been posted as any other meeting.

When boards of education hear parent complaints that the transportation being provided is unreasonable, boards of education act in the capacity of a judge. A fundamental responsibility of any judge is to be impartial; a decision by an unbiased decision-maker is a basic element of due process. Here, the Nutmeg Board members would be woefully incapable of fulfilling that responsibility. The decision in question was made by the Board members themselves, hatched at an illegal meeting to boot.

The due process violation inherent in the Board’s hearing these complaints could have been avoided. By statute, boards of education may establish an impartial hearing board to hear such cases. The Nutmeg Board should have done that here.

Finally, Bob Bombast’s FOI problems are not limited to the illegal meeting at his house. When Polly was speaking, he sent an insulting text message, and after the complaints were filed, he sent an incriminating email. Board members are public officials, and their emails and even their text messages (related to their public responsibilities) are public records subject to public disclosure. Bob’s electronic messages are a smoking gun of bias. Bob should have left his Blackberry at home.

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