Dear Legal Mailbag:

I am nothing if not entrepreneurial, and I recently took an opportunity to earn a little money for the Cheer Fund at the elementary school where I serve as principal. I figured that it has been a challenging year, and with some extra money I could have a nice year-end celebration for my teachers catered in style. But now the mayor of my little town is on my case, and I need to know if I can tell him to mind his own business.

The trouble began last weekend. We have had all sorts of outdated stuff in the school basement, like old desks and chairs and even computers that we will never use again. I figured that holding a tag sale would kill two birds with one stone – we would be able to clean up the basement and we could make a little money. So we held the tag sale! I had the custodians haul the old stuff out of the basement to display on the lawn. Given the wear and tear on these old items, we were conservative in our pricing (like $5.00 for an old desk). There was a great turnout after we advertised on our school website, and the tag sale was a big success. We cleared almost $700, and the basement of our school has never looked better.

We were pleased with our success, but then the mayor called my superintendent, who called me. The mayor is claiming that we did not have any right to sell the old desks and equipment, and he is demanding that we deposit the proceeds from the tag sale in the General Fund. Sadly, my superintendent isn’t exactly going to bat for me. Can we just keep the money?

Signed,
We Earned It

Dear Earned:

There is a basic problem with the tag sale you held. The old furniture and other items were not yours to sell.

School officials have control over property dedicated to use for school purposes. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-220 provides in relevant part:

a) Each local or regional board of education shall maintain good public elementary and secondary schools. . . ; shall provide an appropriate learning environment for all its students which includes (1) adequate instructional books, supplies, materials, equipment, staffing, facilities and technology, (2) equitable allocation of resources among its schools, (3) proper maintenance of facilities, and (4) a safe school setting; . . [and] shall have the care, maintenance and operation of buildings, lands, apparatus and other property used for school purposes . . . . (emphasis added).

It is clear, therefore, that you have the authority to decide whether and how to use the old desks and other equipment at your school.

The problem is that neither you nor other school officials in your district own the property. You will note that school officials have “control of property used for school purposes.” Once property is no longer used for school purposes, whether it is a school that is being closed or the personal property you describe in your letter, control of the property reverts to the town by operation of law. While not a model of clarity, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-241 describes the powers of school districts, and we see that some powers are held by the board of education and the people it employs, like the power to “maintain schools of different grades; to establish and maintain a school library,” and the power to “employ teachers, in accordance with the provisions of section 10-151, and pay their salaries.” However, other powers are clearly municipal in nature, including the power “to purchase, receive, hold and convey real and personal property for school purposes” and “to lay taxes and to borrow money . . . .”

In consultation with your superintendent, you are certainly free to clean the basement of your school and determine that certain property will no longer be used for school purposes. However, once you do, you are not authorized to dispose of the property. Rather, in such cases, school officials should relinquish control of the property and inform the town that such property is now available for its use or disposition as the town may determine.

Legal Mailbag is presuming that you are not employed by a regional school district. If you are, please write back. The answer is different because, unlike local boards of education, regional boards of education have the statutory authority to hold real and personal property used for school purposes.

Finally, as to the Cheer Fund, please consider a bake sale.

Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.

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Photo of Thomas B. Mooney Thomas B. Mooney

Tom is chair emeritus of the School Law Practice Group and is active in all areas of school law, including labor negotiations for certified and non-certified staff, teacher tenure proceedings, grievance arbitration, freedom of information hearings, student disciplinary matters, special education disputes and…

Tom is chair emeritus of the School Law Practice Group and is active in all areas of school law, including labor negotiations for certified and non-certified staff, teacher tenure proceedings, grievance arbitration, freedom of information hearings, student disciplinary matters, special education disputes and all other legal proceedings involving boards of education. Tom is the author of A Practical Guide to Connecticut School Law (9th Edition, 2018), a comprehensive treatise on Connecticut school law, and two columns, “See You in Court!,” which appears in the CABE Journal, and “Legal Mailbag,” which appears in the CAS Bulletin.