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Education Group Calls State Subpoena of Schools ‘Harassment’

by Christine Stuart and Hugh McQuaid | Feb 7, 2012 6:30am
(5) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Town News, Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, New Britain, New London, Norwich, Plainfield, Stamford, Windham

A state subpoena for records from 10 schools districts—all named as plaintiffs in the landmark school funding lawsuit—couldn’t have come at a worse time, one school superintendent said Monday.

Norwich Public Schools Superintendent Abby I. Dolliver said that with her small administrative staff, it’s next to impossible for her district to comply with the subpoena in 30 days.

The attorney general’s office subpoenaed 46 different pieces of information regarding the schools finances, personnel, curriculum, support services, instruction, student outcomes, and facilities. The school districts are plaintiffs in the Connecticut Coalition of Equity and Justice in Education Funding lawsuit against the state.

In 2010, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that under the state constitution all children are entitled to a quality, adequate education and the state must pay for it. The 4-3 decision allowed the case to proceed to trial in Hartford Superior Court. The case is currently in the discovery phase and the trial is expected to begin in 2014.

Aside from Norwich, Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, New Britain, New London, Plainfield, Stamford, Waterford, and Windham received subpoenas, Dianne Kaplan deVries, executive director of CCJEF, said Monday.

“No district could be expected to comply with such an enormously onerous production order,” deVries added.

Dolliver’s central office has four administrators and many of the records the state is requesting aren’t even housed there, she said.

That means she would have to send some of her limited staff out to individual schools to dig up the records.

All this comes as the district is trying to work out its budget and collective bargaining agreements with some of its employees. Norwich is also a troubled district trying hard to make improvement at its schools, she said. While they will do their best to comply, she said getting every item the state wants in the timeline their asking will be impossible.

“We can’t. We just can’t,” she said in a phone interview Monday.

Then there’s the cost to consider. The district wouldn’t be able to afford the amount it would cost in paper alone, let alone the man hours it would take, she said.

Dolliver said many of the items the attorney general’s office is asking for are already kept at the state Department of Education. The subpoenas come less than a week after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy unveiled a proposal aimed at freeing districts from excessive and redundant data reporting.

Dolliver said the lawsuit behind the subpoenas was set in motion long before Malloy took office. She said she thinks the governor understands the burdens placed on school districts and is honestly trying to alleviate them.

“But this certainly doesn’t make it easier,” she said.

Perry Zinn-Rowthorn, associate attorney general for litigation, said the school districts “filed an unprecedented and far-reaching lawsuit against the state, alleging that the state has failed to provide adequate education to school children and seeking court orders dramatically expanding the state’s financial support of local education.”

“The Office of the Attorney General is obligated to defend the lawsuit, which has potentially enormous fiscal consequences for taxpayers,” Zinn-Rowthorn added.

He said the subpoena was necessary because the organization identified 18 expert witnesses, including school employees who work in the towns receiving the subpoenas.

“We have also offered to extend the deadlines for towns to respond to discovery requests, but CCJEF has refused to extend corresponding deadlines affecting the state,” he said in a statement Monday. “Instead, CCJEF has chosen to continue actively litigating against the state, while demanding that we abandon our responsibility to vigorously defend the state in court.”

But the plaintiff’s believe the state’s request goes beyond the ordinary request for documents. An analysis of the subpoenaed records shows that about two-thirds of what’s being requested is already substantially collected annually by the state Department of Education, deVries said.

Amongst the small and mid-sized districts, most superintendents conservatively estimated that answering the subpoena as it is currently written will likely to require between 550 and 1600 hours of effort, at an approximate cost ranging from $35,000 to $85,000 — and that even so, they will not be able to fully retrieve the vast amount of decade-old information being requested.

“In any litigation, one fully expects the plaintiff parties to get subpoenaed for the collection of pertinent facts directly related to the case,“ CCJEF President Frank Carrano said. “But these subpoenas go far beyond that.“

He called them “harassment.”

“Moreover there’s irony here, in that these subpoenas and their massive and duplicative reporting burden come just at a time that Gov. Malloy has announced that reducing state paperwork and reporting mandates on school districts is a critical part of his education reform effort,” Carrano added.

Zinn-Rowthorn said his office remains open to discussing the scope of the subpoenas, but doesn’t want to do it through the media.

“As in any case, we remain open to discussing measures to limit discovery and believe that such discussions are best conducted among counsel and the court, rather than through the press,” he said.

In fact, the state wouldn’t mind if CCJEF agreed to “stay the litigation in its entirety – including discovery –  so that their concerns can be addressed through on-going legislative and policy processes, minimizing litigation burdens on the state and towns.” 

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(5) Comments

posted by: UConnHoop | February 7, 2012  8:34am

So let me get this straight.  These school districts file a lawsuit against the state but complain when the state tries to establish a defense?  Cry me a river.  Drop the suit and work at making the changes that are desired through the legislature where it belongs.

posted by: lkulmann | February 7, 2012  10:04am

Case in point. When it comes to SpEd, you either write about what needs to be done or you do what needs to be done. You can’t do both. In public schools there is a whole lot of writing going on. Don’t feel bad, its the same way in nursing. If you didn’t write it down, it wasn’t done…paperwork is excessive

posted by: kenneth_krayeske | February 7, 2012  10:24am

Perry Zinn-Rowthorn: “The Office of the Attorney General is obligated to defend the lawsuit, which has potentially enormous fiscal consequences for taxpayers.” 

So does illiteracy. And riddle me this, Atty. Zinn-Rowthorn: why should the taxpayers be against equal funding for all children?

It is really simple, Perry: Free and equal education for all (its in the state Constitution) - and let’s expand it from pre-natal care for mothers (ala Harlem Children’s Zone) through free college tuition. Whatever it costs, the rich taxpayers should be more than happy to foot the bill.

Perry, you are on the wrong side of history here.  The Attorney General’s office can continue to fight against the wave of history, or it can stand with the people of this state who demand equality.  These litigation tactics come from the same vine as the bottle of champagne Rowland sent Blumenthal after a victory in a round in Sheff v. O’Neill.

The names change, but the story doesn’t. It’s really pathetic that good lawyers seek to thwart the will of the people.

posted by: jonpelto | February 7, 2012  12:47pm

Ken, you pegged this one perfectly.  Just finishing up a blog on this issue and will post.  Jepsen and Malloy have the opportunity of a lifetime to create real and lasting change while laying down a foundation for a better educated people and a more economically productive state. 
First Jepsen/Malloy moved to carve out early education from the definition of education – when, in fact, early education is the single greatest step that can be taken to produce better educational results later. 
And now to punish the towns for standing up and pushing the state to fulfill its Constitutional duty.  I love the line that the towns “Filed an unprecedented and far-reaching lawsuit against the state, alleging that the state has failed to provide adequate education to school children”  Ah… why yes it was the towns that did that because Weicker, Rowland, Rell and Democratic legislatures kept cutting the state share of education creating an even more unconstitutional education system.
He says it like the towns are somehow UnAmerican by demanding that the state follow the Constitution.  AND of course, what are Jepsen and Malloy doing when they Stamford was a founding plaintiff in the case and Malloy repeatedly said and campaigned on his support for the lawsuit in both 2006 and 2010.

posted by: bgenerous | February 7, 2012  4:28pm

Agree that this potentially has big financial consequences for taxpayers.  I would expect the attorney general’s office to defend the state vigorously.