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Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter

Dear Legal Mailbag:

As the principal of an elementary school, I am a bit of a neatnik. Last month, I was looking around at old chairs, tables, and who-knows-what in our storeroom, and I realized that they did not bring me joy. Thinking about the holidays, the solution came to me. In conjunction with the PTO, I organized an event we called “Santa’s Workshop,” and, after festively decorating our gymnasium, we put out the unused property from our storeroom as well as items that PTO members wanted to unload. It is amazing what people will buy, and we had a good night, grossing over $1,000 for the PTO.

Yesterday, I got a call from the Superintendent. Apparently, the Town Manager got wind of our school event, and he is demanding that the proceeds from our event be turned over to the General Fund. However, the PTO leadership wants to keep the money. Would Legal Mailbag be able to suggest how I can artfully tell the Town Manager happy holidays and pound sand?

Signed,
Santa’s Helper

Dear Helper:

You may feel better about cleaning house, and your heart is certainly in the right place. However, your knowledge of municipal law leaves something to be desired.

Other than the junk items donated by PTO members, you sold things that didn’t belong to you. School officials can certainly decide how best to use school property. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-220, Duties of Boards of Education, provides that local boards of education “shall have the care, maintenance and operation of buildings, lands, apparatus and other property used for school purposes.” As principal of your school, you can certainly decide how to use school property (subject of course to board of education policies and superintendent directives). However, you will note that “ownership” is not listed in the statute that empowers boards of education.

Property dedicated to use for school purposes remains the property of the town that paid for it. Legal Mailbag does not mean to suggest that you must keep outdated or unused property that clutters your building and does not bring you joy. However, school officials cannot simply sell such property and give the proceeds to a worthy recipient such as the PTO. Rather, school officials must reach out to the town and follow its rules for the disposition of municipal property.

Legal Mailbag does not mean to complicate your life unnecessarily, and some school property (e.g., a broken chair) has no value and can be thrown out. But the very fact that someone bought what you considered junk shows that it had some value that you were not authorized to expropriate. 

Finally, a heartfelt apology and a promise not to make the same mistake in the future may be all you need to do. Unless the Town Manager has a heart of stone, your apology may suffice, and in the holiday spirit he may be willing not to require that you claw back from the PTO the proceeds from the sale of town property. Happy Holidays!

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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.