School board votes to pay, not search
Posted in the Trumbull Forum
#1 Jul 23, 2013
BRIDGEPORT -- At a meeting so contentious that a former state senator was escorted from the room by police, the city school board agreed Tuesday to pick up the tab for Paul Vallas' legal fees as his right to remain the district school superintendent is argued before the state Supreme Court.
The board also won't be shopping for a new schools superintendent just yet, as it failed on a 4-4 tie vote -- with a ninth member absent -- to start a search to find a new school leader.
The decisions were made before an audience that repeatedly shouted comments from the outset as board members spoke. Objecting to a board discussion about paying for the legal fees, former state Sen. Edwin Gomes stood up, screaming at both board Chairman Kenneth Moales Jr. and then City Attorney Mark Anastasi.
"You don't point your finger at me," Gomes screamed at Moales in a jam-packed room at City Hall. "People are taking advantage of the citizens of Bridgeport ... This is about money."
Board member Hernan Illingworth said the suit to have Vallas disqualified as the city's superintendent of schools was really a personal vendetta against an individual who wants to bring change to the district.
"Our school district has been failing for many, many years and I am sick and tired of being told as a father of a daughter,`Hey, your daughter can't learn because she is too poor,' " Illingworth told Gomes. "We need change. We need to fix our school system."
When Gomes continued to argued and was told that police would be called if he did not sit down, he repeatedly screamed "Do it!" Two officers eventually did come and take him out of the room for disrupting the meeting.
The 5-3 vote to pay for Vallas' defense came after Anastasi submitted a letter from Hartford Attorney Steven Ecker, the outside legal counsel representing Vallas, saying the fees would not top $50,000. Ecker said he was reducing his standard $420 hourly rate to $275 an hour in light of the city's economic constraints.
Moales, Illingworth, Thomas Mulligan, Jacqueline Kelleher and Leticia Colon voted in favor of paying the legal cost. Maria Pereira, Bobby Simmons and John Bagley voted against it.
Pereira argued that money should not be taken from the district to defend Vallas against a personal lawsuit.
"He is not being sued for doing anything wrong .... we aren't even a party in it," Pereira said.
"He is being sued because he is superintendent," said Mulligan. "To say to somebody,`If you get sued on your own you are going to have to pay your own legal fees'-- no one in their right mind would be interested in the position."
Anastasi told the board that state statutes and Vallas' contract, which indemnifies him against lawsuits, are grounds for paying for his legal fees.
Vallas came to the district in late 2011, on what was to be a temporary basis, when the a state-appointed school board was in charge. He had led school districts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, but does not have the certification needed to be a schools superintendent in Connecticut.
This year, the elected school board voted to offer Vallas a three-year contract and a state law was passed that allowed certification to be waived if Vallas took a program approved by the state Board of Education. The program Vallas took was challenged, and a trial judge last month not only ruled him unqualified, but ordered him out of office immediately.
The state Supreme Court agreed to take up the appeal, and a decision on a stay is pending.
Because of the uncertainty, Pereira asked at Tuesday's meeting that the board start a search committee for the purposes of finding out what the community wants in its next superintendent.
She said she didn't want to spend money, but added, "If we don't
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