BRIDGEPORT _ In an unprecedented move sure to bring about a legal challenge, the city school board voted 6-2 Monday to no longer recognize the executive committee of the District Parent Advisory Council.
Interim Superintendent of Schools Fran Rabinowitz recommended the action, saying the parent executive board has adopted rules and procedures that have disenfranchised parents.
A number of parents have approached the school board in recent months saying they have been kicked off leadership roles on school level PACs _ despite being voted into their roles by parents _ because they belong to or are thought to associated with other educational advocacy groups, including charter school groups.
Rabinowitz called the decision difficult and she is not suggesting school level PACs be disbanded.
“If we are to become a model urban district, the children of Bridgeport need and deserve a parent group to continue to advocate for what best for the children of Bridgeport … free of politics,” she said. “We do need to make changes.”
PACs are funded by federal Title 1 funds but there are no requirement that they exist, according to the state. There is a requirement for parent engagement but it is up for the district to structure it.
The board action came after consultation with its attorney, Thomas Mooney who called in inadvisable for the board to recognize a district parent organization that seeks to interfere with the rights of individuals to associate with other groups. It could invite a First Amendment challenge, he said.
He also said it was within the board’s power to redefine the parent group that it had a role in creating.
Board Member Joe Larcheveque, who voted for the measure – along with Chairman Dave Hennessey, Andre Baker, Kenneth Moales, Kadisha Coates and Hernan Illingworth – said he had heard from school PAC presidents made to feel they do not belong part of the district PAC.
Board member Hernan Illingworth, a former District PAC president said the direction of the current PAC leadership is just down right wrong, with power resting with a small group and not school presidents.
Board members Sauda Baraka and Howard Gardner voted against the action.
Baraka said at the very least, the matter needed to follow board rules and go to the board’s policy committee. The board, in voting to disassociate itself from the parent leaders, also voted to suspend that policy in this instance.
Gardner said it is up to parents to solve their own issues.
“Let the democratic process work itself out,” Gardner said, suggesting the real problem was not with PAC policies but with its leadership’s critical critique of the board majority.
At the last school board meeting, District PAC President Tammy Boyle spent her report criticizing board members and actions despite several attempts by the board to get her to stop.
Attorney Norman Pattis said he would go to court within the next week to challenge the board decision. He was hired with funds raised by Maria Pereira, a former board member and community representative to the District Executive PAC.
“I guess its rule by coup round two in Bridgeport,” Pattis said, referencing the state take over of the school board in 2011. Pattis was among the attorneys that won a State Supreme Court reversal of the takeover.
“There is something profoundly undemocratic about the Bridgeport school board and Mayor (Bill) Finch’s approach to it,” Pattis said, suggesting the same “big money” that attempted to take over the board is now working to stop parents from keeping those beholding to charter schools off its board.
Pattis added that Mooney’s contention that First Amendment rights could have been violated is ridiculous.
“They know better,” he said.
Pattis also said it was deeply disturbing that the action came at an early evening special meeting where no comment or public debate allowed.
During the regular meeting that followed the special meeting, several parents spoke in favor of the board decision.
John Wilkins, a former PAC leader, said the organization used to encourage parents and worked collaboratively with the school board and hopes will once again.
Cecile Lobo, one of the parents ousted by the PAC leadership, said her fight was not with PAC, but with district leaders using their positions to advance political agendas.