Connecticut Law Tribune, August 8, 2011

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Entrenched financial stresses on our federal, state and local governments have made everyone cranky. Our locally-elected officials have a terribly difficult job to do, with shrinking resources and an anxious public.

Even in good times, the different responsibilities of towns and boards of education have caused second-guessing and mutual distrust, given that half to two-thirds or more of local expenditures go to fund education. In these tough times, tensions have boiled over in some towns, with public confrontations, power grabs and even litigation.
Such actions undermine public confidence in our local government and can even divert scare resources to fund intra-governmental conflict. Cooperation between these two bodies is in the public interest, and a review of the respective rights and responsibilities of towns and boards of education may foster better understanding and a more peaceful coexistence.

We start with a basic premise: education in Connecticut is a state responsibility. Article Eighth, Section 1 of the Connecticut Constitution provides simply: “There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.”

This constitutional right to education has been the subject of litigation for almost forty years, starting with the filing of Horton v. Meskill in 1974 and ongoing with Sheff v. O’Neill (filed in 1989, initially decided by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1996, and still in litigation today). In March of last year, a fractured Connecticut Supreme Court, in a plurality opinion by Justice Fleming Norcott Jr., decided that the 23 words in Article Eighth, Section 1 establish a substantive standard for education. Significantly, however, a court majority was unable to agree on what that standard should be. Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding Inc. v. Rell (2010).

Though the ongoing constitutional challenges and related reform efforts are daunting, they reflect the fact that school boards have a special status in municipal government. School board members do act as agents of the town in which they serve, but they also serve as agents of the state, responsible for implementing the educational interests of the state that are created in the Constitution. The General Assembly has delegated its educational responsibility by statute to local and regional boards of education, but the overarching state responsibility for education continues. Each year, the General Assembly imposes a host of new obligations on local and regional boards of education, and it can and does exercise more direct control in specific situations.

The Windham Board of Education is currently under special supervision by the state Board of Education, the Bridgeport Board of Education is being reconstituted, and the Hartford Board of Education was replaced for some five years in the 1990s by the State Board of Trustees for the Hartford Public Schools.

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