See You In Court! – May, 2018

by Shipman & Goodwin LLP
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Bob Bombast, veteran member of the Nutmeg Board of Education, was surprised to see a work team and a backhoe on the grounds of Median Middle School. So surprised in fact that he parked his car and walked over to find out what was going on. The workers explained that they were converting the field next to the school to a baseball diamond, and they sought to reassure Bob that they would be done this month.

Bob was not reassured, because he did not remember hearing about any such plans from Mr. Superintendent. Bob then checked with Mr. Superintendent, who told Bob that he was unaware of the project and vowed to get to the bottom of this mystery.

It didn’t take him long. When Mr. Superintendent arrived on the site, he found out that the workers were from the Town of Nutmeg, and they explained that they were working at the direction of Mayor Megillah. Mr. Superintendent drove right over to Nutmeg City Hall and interrupted a meeting the Mayor was having with his staff. Mayor Megillah explained that the Parks & Recreation Department had been complaining about lack of space for all their Town leagues, and that the Nutmeg Town Council had voted at its last meeting to install the baseball diamond in question.

Mr. Superintendent was aghast at the presumption of Mayor Megillah and the Town Council. He chided the Mayor for overstepping and demanded that work on the baseball diamond stop immediately until the Nutmeg Board of Education can consider the matter. Mayor Megillah surprised Mr. Superintendent by pushing back hard. Mayor Megillah explained that the Town owns the property and can do what it wants, and he then abruptly ended the conversation and returned to his staff meeting.

Mr. Superintendent immediately called Bob Bombast, and together they got Mrs. Chairperson on the line to discuss this latest crisis. The three of them quickly worked themselves into a tizzy of indignation, and Mrs. Chairperson agreed to call an emergency meeting of the Nutmeg Board of Education for that very evening.

Surprisingly, all nine members of the Nutmeg Board of Education were available for the meeting, and when Mrs. Chairperson and Mr. Superintendent explained what was happening, the Board members discussed the need for immediate action. Mal Content expressed concern that antagonizing the Town on this point could be a political problem for the Board at budget time. After talking it through at length, however, all the Board members agreed that the Board had to assert its jurisdiction over the property. The Board voted unanimously to direct Mr. Superintendent to make a formal demand on Mayor Megillah that the Town stop further construction and that the Town restore the area on the school field to its prior condition.

Mr. Superintendent delivered that demand personally to Mayor Megillah the next morning. Mayor Megillah, however, was unfazed by the Board’s action. “You can tell the Board to butt out. This is a Town concern, and we will continue construction of this much-needed baseball diamond, whether you like it or not!”

Mr. Superintendent told the Mayor that he was simply wrong and that the Board is prepared to take legal action if necessary, but Mayor Megillah simply snorted in response with “Then, I guess that we will see you in court!”

What are the chances for the Nutmeg Board of Education in court?

*        *        *

We may hope that this dispute is resolved short of judicial proceedings, but if court intervention is necessary, the Nutmeg Board of Education should prevail.

We start by recognizing that Mayor Megillah is correct in one thing he said. The property in question is indeed owned by the Town of Nutmeg. But that is only the beginning of the analysis. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-240 provides that each town is a school district (except for regional school districts, which are composed of two or more towns), and further specifies that the schools are under the control of the board of education: “Each town shall through its board of education maintain the control of all the public schools within its limits and for this purpose shall be a school district.”

The statutes clarify that maintaining “control of all the public schools” within the school district involves more than the school buildings themselves. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-220(a) provides in relevant part: “Each local or regional board of education shall have the care, maintenance and operation of buildings, lands, apparatus and other property used for school purposes . . . .” (Emphasis added).

On rare occasion, towns and their boards of education dispute whether specific property is dedicated to use for school property. In such cases, it is necessary to review the original municipal action taken to grant the board of education control over the property. There won’t be an entry in the land records, because ownership remains in the municipality. However, the town record of handing property over the board of Education should describe what property was dedicated at that time to school use.

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-239 further clarifies that the board of education has control of all school grounds, not just school buildings: “Any local or regional board of education may provide for the use of any room, hall, schoolhouse, school grounds or other school facility within its jurisdiction for nonprofit educational or community purposes whether or not school is in session.” (Emphasis added).

This statute is the basis for the Nutmeg Parks & Rec Department to use school playing fields for community purposes. Significantly, however, Parks & Rec (and any other municipal or community group) may use property dedicated to use for school purposes only with the permission of the Board of Education. Here, the Town of Nutmeg clearly overstepped when it decided to change the use of a portion of school property to a baseball diamond. One can hope that reviewing the statutory authority of boards of education with Mayor Megillah will convince him of the error of his ways (at least in this respect), but if not, the Board of Education will likely prevail in court.

Finally, the Board’s decision to hold an “emergency meeting” raises a question under the Freedom of Information Act. An emergency meeting is any special meeting that is not preceded by proper notice at least twenty-four hours before the meeting. Such meetings are permissible, but only in a true emergency, which the Commission has defined as “an unexpected situation or sudden occurrence of a serious and urgent nature that demands immediate action.” Given the ongoing and unauthorized work, this situation may have qualified as an emergency. As a legal matter, the Board was required to explain the need for emergency action in the minutes of the meeting. As a practical matter, it would also been helpful for the Board to alert the regular members of the press to the meeting to avoid a claim that the Board was being secretive in holding the emergency meeting.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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