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SEE YOU IN COURT! - January 2009

January 5, 2009

Authors: Thomas B. Mooney

Joe Broom, long-time custodian for the Nutmeg Public Schools, was rummaging around in the basement of Median Middle School, and he found a dusty old picture behind the boiler. He hauled it out of the basement to the custodians’ room and unwrapped it. It was some long-forgotten painting, an old-fashioned scene of people dressed funny, and Joe thought about just throwing it out. But then he figured that his daughter, who was just starting out on her own, might want something to hang on the walls of her new apartment. Being a good do-be, however, Joe decided he’d better ask permission before simply taking it.

He called Mr. Principal, and asked if he could have the old painting. Mr. Principal told he that it would probably be okay, but he said he had better look at it first. When he stopped by, however, Mr. Principal could not believe his eyes. An art history major in college, Mr. Principal immediately recognized the dusty old painting as a wonderful example of WPA art from the 1930s. Mr. Principal got right on the telephone.

“Mr. Superintendent, I have some great news. Joe Broom found a wonderful painting in the basement at the middle school, and while I don’t want to exaggerate, I think that our budget problems are over.” With that, Mr. Principal had Joe carefully wrap the painting, and he brought it right over to the Board offices to show Mr. Superintendent. Mr. Superintendent was no art history major, and he thought that Mr. Principal had gotten a little carried away. But times were tough, and every little bit of money would be a help. After some discussion, he and Mr. Principal agreed that a nice auction might be the best way to make a little money on Joe Broom’s fortuitous discovery.

Mr. Principal put an announcement of the auction in the school’s monthly online newsletter, and to generate interest, he included a picture of the painting. Nancy Newshound of the Nutmeg Bugle, heard about it, and she wrote a big story. When the big night arrived, the school cafeteria was full and the air was electric. All the members of the Board sat front and center, and Mr. Principal was decked out in a tux. After Mr. Principal auctioned off a number of other items that had been donated to the school, the big moment arrived.

“May we start the bidding at $1,000? Do I hear $1,000?” intoned Mr. Principal. Veteran Board member Bob Bombast swallowed hard and raised his hand. But Bob quickly dropped out of the bidding as things heated up, which they quickly did. Soon, a contest shaped up between two well-dressed strangers. The room was still and the crowd was agog as the bidding between the two moved quickly through the tens of thousands of dollars. The tension grew almost unbearable until finally one of the mysterious strangers dropped out, leaving the other making the winning bid of . . . $126,000 dollars. While Joe Broom quietly reflected on what might have been, the rest of the room burst into applause.

Bob Bombast immediately shared his (unsolicited) ideas on how this found money should be spent. But he and his Board colleagues were shocked when Mr. Superintendent informed them that the Town of Nutmeg had other ideas. Seymour Dollars, venerable Chairperson of the Board of Finance, had notified Mr. Superintendent of his expectation that the Board would “promptly and forthwith remit to the Town Treasurer the proceeds of the recent auction.”

Does the Town have any claim here?

* * *

The good fortune of the Nutmeg Public Schools illustrates an important principle of school law in Connecticut. While boards of education operate independently of town authority in many ways, they remain part of the larger municipal organization. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-240 provides that “each town shall through its board of education maintain the control of all the public schools within its limits and for this purpose shall be a school district . . . .” From this simple sentence, we see that the town is the school district, and that the board of education acts on behalf of the town in implementing the educational interests of the state. Accordingly, the municipality, not the board of education, owns property dedicated to use for school purposes. While the board of education has control and authority over such property, the board of education cannot unilaterally either sell property or spend the proceeds.

The authority of boards of education over such property is evident in various ways. In describing the powers and duties of boards of education, for example, Section 10-220 provides that the board of education has “the care, maintenance and operation of buildings, lands, apparatus and other property used for school purposes.” This broad grant of authority means that the board of education has the final say over the use of such property. With a limited exception (i.e. voting), the town can ask, but cannot require that the board of education permit any particular use of school property (e.g., installation of lights on the football field; use of school facilities for community activities).

Conversely, once the board of education decides that real property will no longer be used for school purposes, that property reverts to the municipality by operation of law. If a board of education closes a school, for example, there is no transfer of title. Rather, the property is simply rededicated to municipal use, and it reverts to municipal control. Similarly, if personal property (e.g., furniture, equipment) is obsolete or worn-out, control reverts back to the municipality because the property is no longer used for school purposes. Of course, there are practical considerations, and presumably items that are truly without value can be discarded without municipal objection.

Even art can be used for school purposes. However, the Nutmeg Board of Education did not restore and rehang the painting. By putting it up for auction, the Board perforce determined that it was no longer being used for school purposes. Accordingly, Seymour Dollars correctly claimed that the proceeds belong to the Town. Had the Board thought ahead, it could have negotiated a deal with the Town regarding the proceeds.

Finally, we would be remiss if we neglected to recognize the special authority of regional boards of education. On behalf of their member towns, regional boards of education have control of the “school district” and have many of the powers that would otherwise be exercised by the municipality. Regional district do own property and have authority to dispose of it as they see fit.

Thomas B. Mooney is a partner in the firm's Labor and Employment Law Practice and heads the firm's School Law Practice.

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