Originally published in the Connecticut Post
December 28, 2014
Thomas Mooney likes to say school law is not like chemistry.
Chemistry has formulas. Mix them together and things pretty much come out the same way. Not so with education, said Mooney, an attorney whose firm, Shipman & Goodwin, represents more than half of the school districts in the state including Stamford, Greenwich, Danbury and Bridgeport.
“It is a complex process and there are many different perspectives and answers. So when there is a decision to make, it is not just cut and dry,” Mooney said. “It really is just trying to get all the facts and making your best decision.”
The best decisions are collaborative, he said, not just a lawyer telling the school board what to do.
But the collaborative, meticulous lawyer who wrote the go-to book on state education law — “A Practical Guide To Connecticut School Law” — landed in the spotlight recently, after a Stamford High School English teacher was found to be having a sexual relationship with a student and two school administrators were arrested in October and charged with failing to report the abuse.
In 37 years of practicing education law, Mooney has encountered a number of situations in which his role is more that of a defense attorney, such as the current one with the Stamford Board of Education.
Mooney won’t talk about specifics of the Stamford case, which has the school board facing questions of why Mooney advised them that the teacher-student relationship did not have to be reported to the Department of Children and Families. Multiple teachers, the two principals and at least two higher-ups were suspicious of the relationship months before police got involved, according to affidavits and confidential Shipman & Goodwin documents obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media.
Mooney has said because the student was 18 at the time the police were notified of the relationship, it did not have to be reported to DCF.
From German to law
Mooney, 63, started out wanting to be a teacher, not a lawyer. He grew up in Oak Park River, Ill., just outside Chicago. His father was a movie projectionist. Neither of his parents went to college. His high school was big and the education good enough to get him into Yale University.
At Yale, he took German, learned to love the language and thought of teaching it until a friend told him his German sounded like he had potatoes in his mouth.
Rather than becoming a second-rate German professor, Mooney switched gears and got into Harvard Law School. He set his sights on labor law and joined Shipman & Goodwin when it had just 20 lawyers. Now there are 150 and the firm is in the penthouse of a Hartford skyscraper, with another office in Stamford.
In the late 1970s, education law was in its infancy. Cases that would form the basis of student due process rights, religion in schools, the right to privacy and laws governing special education and disabilities were all relatively new concepts.
By nine years out of law school, Mooney had shifted his focus from labor law to education. He has been teaching at the University of Connecticut School of Law since 1985 and at UConn’s Neag School of Education since 2001. He also called up the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and told them what they needed was an “Ann Landers” kind of column based on school law.
He created the fictional Nutmeg Board of Education and board characters like “Mal Content” and “Penny Pincher” in a column called “See You in Court.”
“He’s never missed a column,” Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel of the school boards’ association said. “They are all insightful, with a touch of humor and reflect challenges faced by one or more boards of education in Connecticut.”
“Every month they get into trouble and I explain what they did wrong,” Mooney said. “It’s been great.”
When Mooney set out to compile a collection of his columns into a book, he realized he had a lot more to say and his guide to Connecticut school law was born. This month, the eighth edition, 702 pages long, was released and is available through the school boards’ association. It is a book found on the shelves of most school superintendents in the state.
The book covers federal and state laws associated with school boards, teachers, students, collective bargaining, special education, religion and even extracurricular activities.
“It is not a best seller, but it is an essential work,” Mooney said.
Lawyer to the school boards
Shipman & Goodwin now has 23 attorneys who focus just on education law. Mooney is co-leader of the school law practice group and said he is point person to about 25 of the 123 public school agencies — school districts, charter schools, regional cooperatives — the firm represents. He is still active in Stamford, which was his first big client and his firm was just hired to handle most of the Bridgeport school board’s legal matters.
“I was just in Stamford on Wednesday in mediation with their administrators. I have done their collective bargaining for almost 30 years,” Mooney said.
Although the firm technically represents school boards, it deals with school superintendents and their staffs.
“If a kid shows up to school with an offensive T-shirt or a teacher shows up to work intoxicated, the board chair isn’t going to call me, the superintendent is,” Mooney said.
Mooney’s experience and demeanor, have won him many fans.
Bridgeport Interim Schools Superintendent Fran Rabinowitz has known Mooney since she was a new school superintendent in Hamden.
“As a new superintendent, I had lots of questions,” she said. “He never made me feel I should have known that.”
His expertise, she added, cuts down on legal fees. “He can cut to the chase on issues, he knows education law so well. It takes him no time to research,” she said.
Even opposing counsel respect him.
Darien is one of Shipman & Goodwin’s clients, though most of its advice is provided by an attorney other than Mooney. In 2013, the Darien school district was found to have violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by creating a program to restrict, reduce and remove educational services to students with disabilities. In the fallout from that, the superintendent and other special education administrators abruptly resigned and took jobs elsewhere.
Andrew Feinstein, a lawyer who represented parents who complained in 2013 about the Darien school district’s handling of special education, had nothing but praise for Mooney.
“Tom has never said anything to me that I considered to be inconsistent with the law,” Feinstein said.
Jim Connelly, a retired Bridgeport schools superintendent who tapped Shipman & Goodwin decades ago when Bridgeport was working to revamp its special education programs, said Mooney never gave bad advice.
“Sometimes I may not have followed it,” Connelly said. “Sometimes it was a difference in style, but the core of what he was recommending was always correct.”
Mooney said advice he gives school boards generally is the product of a conversation. “It’s all about how do we make the best of what we have to educate children,” he said. While some things are cut and dry
— a school board can’t decide to hold school 179 days when the law says 180 days — other things are less so.
He also conducts workshops for school boards on the Freedom of Information Act and other topics, and conducted sessions this fall for the school boards of Bridgeport and Ridgefield. Mooney does not offer mandatory reporter training for school personnel, but does give in-service training on the subject.
His wife of 41 years, Marlee, is a retired teacher. Mooney said retirement is not for him. He may cut down on night meetings, which come with covering school boards, but expects to always write his column and update his book.
“Because, you know, school law changes all the time,” he said.
Click here to view as a web page.