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New School Residency Law Couldn’t Save Stratford Woman

by Hugh McQuaid | Jul 24, 2013 1:36pm
(4) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Legal

Hugh McQuaid Photo

Marie Menard and her daughter Ana Wade

A federal court judge on Wednesday ruled against a Stratford women who claimed her constitutional rights were violated when she was arrested for illegally enrolling her grandchildren in a public school system.

The ruling came a month after the state adopted a law that would have prevented her arrest.

Judge Michael P. Shea sided with the Stratford Board of Education over a 2011 case in which the town prosecuted Marie Menard for enrolling her grandchildren in the town’s school system while they resided in Milford with their mother, Ana Wade. Wade also was arrested.

Menard, who has since resolved her criminal case through a court diversionary program, filed a complaint in federal court claiming the town violated her right to equal protection because they prosecuted her but declined to seek charges in similar cases.

The judge ruled quickly in the case. After hearing oral arguments Wednesday morning, he took a 10-minute recess then returned and essentially dismissed Menard’s case.

Shea agreed with the town’s attorney, Alexandria Voccio, who argued that the town had discretion over which cases it chooses to pursue. In this case, Stratford based its decision to press charges against Menard based on the amount of documented evidence against her. The town declined to prosecute in some other cases in an effort to avoid negative publicity, Voccio said.

“The defendants have articulated a rational basis for treating the plaintiff differently than other individuals,” the judge said. “. . . The court sees several conceivable and legitimate reasons why the defendants would seek to avoid negative attention.”

Menard’s attorney, Josephine S. Miller, disagreed.

“They have waffled back and forth and it seems to me that that leaves citizens like Mrs. Menard at the mercy of the sovereign,” she said.

The ruling comes just a month after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a new law that would have prevented Menard’s arrest by taking the issue of misrepresenting school enrollment out of the hands of the courts.

Connecticut law previously considered enrolling children in a school system where they did not reside to be a theft of educational services, chargeable under larceny statutes. Under the new law, which takes effect in October, Menard’s case would have been handled by an administrative hearing officer. The law allows the decisions of those hearing officers to be appealed to the state Board of Education.

Hugh McQuaid Photo Rep. Bruce Morris, a Norwalk Democrat who supports the new law, said the hearing process should have been what Menard experienced rather than being arrested. He said it will protect Connecticut families going forward.

“A person can no longer be arrested, faced with 20 years imprisonment, a crime that was equivalent to bank robbery, for trying to get your children an education,” he said.

Miller said she was disappointed by the judge’s ruling and would look at her client’s options for appeal. Although Connecticut’s new law will change the process here in the state, its passage does not impact Menard. An appeal also could have implications for similar cases outside Connecticut. Since other states don’t have the same new legislation as Connecticut, the case could have broader implications in those other states.

“The issue is still out there for many others,” Miller said. “I’m sure similar things are still happening to other families.”

Following the ruling, Voccio said she felt the judge made the right call on a difficult case.

“It’s a tough issue, obviously in terms of what happened for this family, but the decision was the right one in this case,” she said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo Menard and supporters gathered on the courthouse steps before the hearing for a press conference. The event, which included other parents who have been arrested in similar cases, was organized by Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union.

Samuel called Menard a “proud grandmother” who was arrested by the town she lives in for “stealing a public education.”

“What made this case unique was she is a homeowner and a taxpayer in the city that arrested her. The argument that I have heard related to educational theft is that it is a drain on the district” and the districts’ taxpayers, she said.

Morris, who spoke at the press conference and sat in the courtroom during Wednesday’s proceedings, said he believes that the disparities between the state’s school districts are the real problem.

“We have taken on one part of this equation by decriminalizing this issue. The latter part is we need to make all schools equal so that no parent has to make this type of decision,” he said.


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(4) Comments

posted by: Just another CT resident | July 24, 2013  1:59pm

So if I follow Rep. Morris’ logic, if I steal from taxpayers to send my kids to a better school, it’s only a misdemeanor, but if I steal from Rep. Morris (or say a bank) and use the money to pay the tuition to send my kids to a “better” school, I should go to jail.
Yep, makes sense to me. Not.

posted by: art vandelay | July 24, 2013  3:41pm

art vandelay

This case and new law has much further ramifications. It will now open the door to allow any student from any city or town the right to attend any school he or she chooses.  It opens the door to the 6 large Connecticut school districts as outlined in last falls article in Connecticut Magazine.  It will also open the door to a uniform mill rate to fund the proposed 6 school districts.  Education will no longer be a local, it will entirely be run by the state.

posted by: Chesler | July 25, 2013  12:05am

It’s not clear that Menard was stealing at all.
Milford may be the better of the two school systems, both are adequate, but there was good reason to maintain continuity for the school year.
Milford in fact has a policy for such a situation, I’m surprised Stratford does not.

It’s not always obvious which is correct school district, and absent a clear intention to defraud this should not be handled criminally.
Whatever Menard cost the other taxpayers of Stratford she must also have been saving the taxpayers of Milford who were not, but supposedly should have been, educating her grandchildren.

My own situation isn’t completely clear. I’ve acted in good faith, but someone could interpret it differently:
I just moved to Milford last summer. Two of my children came with me and enrolled in school here.  I suppose that’s OK.
BUT one of the boys wants to move back to where we used to live, and he goes back there almost every other weekend. So maybe he’s not a resident.
Now my daughter stayed behind to finish her last year of high school. We didn’t sell the old house, so I guess it’s OK.
BUT she was living with her grandfather, so maybe it wasn’t.
BUT he has lived in that same town for 60 years too, same district as the house we had. So maybe it’s OK.
I checked the Milford regulations, and if the child lives with someone else they can go to school where they live, so if it works the other way it is OK what my daughter did.
BUT if the parent pays the someone else, then Milford does not consider the child a bona fide resident, and I was sending up some money every week because a teenager eats a lot and requires the internet and needs to be driven around, so maybe it’s not OK.
And I don’t plan to die in Milford. We chose it for the schools (and in fact rejected Stratford for the schools, go figure) but when we’re empty nesters in about four years we might move elsewhere—so are we not bona fide permanent Milford residents?

posted by: Chien DeBerger | July 25, 2013  2:21pm

How about school vouchers?