Editorial: Hartford School Board Off Track Again

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

It is a mystery why elected officials would go out of their way to frustrate and offend 600 of their constituents, but that appears to be exactly what the Hartford School Board did last month by its cavalier treatment of petitioners seeking a Town Meeting vote on building a track and field at the high school.

The current effort by track supporters is only the latest chapter in a saga that dates back almost 30 years. As recently as 2013, voters approved building a track as part of a $9 million bond that included financing for several school and municipal projects. But when cost estimates proved faulty, the track was jettisoned. The following year, voters twice rejected additional borrowing to build a track and turf field, in what was seen by a number of observers as a stinging rebuke to the school district for having failed to do its due diligence on the earlier bond.

Perhaps that explains why, when the nonprofit Friends of Hartford Track renewed its efforts recently, it received a decidedly lukewarm reception from School Board Chairman Kevin Christie, who suggested to staff writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling that the board now had higher priorities and that in order to gain official backing, supporters would have to demonstrate a significant groundswell in public opinion. He also hinted ominously that the language of the petition the Friends were circulating was problematic, a situation that the district had declined to remedy by having its legal counsel vet the wording.

The Friends say they then approached other lawyers with expertise in municipal law but were rebuffed on the grounds that the attorneys had actual or potential conflicts of interest through their representation of municipal entities. Given that situation, the group simply forged ahead and in short order gathered nearly 600 valid signatures on the petition and duly filed it in a timely fashion with the town clerk for presentation to the School Board. It posed three questions: First, should the school district appropriate up to $50,000 to design a track and field facility? Second, if so, should that appropriation be managed by a committee consisting of the school athletic director, the town recreation director, the chair of the Friends of Hartford Track, a member selected by the School Board, and a fifth member selected by the other four? Third, if so, should the school district, upon receiving detailed design and engineering plans, seek construction bids for 2019 in order to have accurate dollar estimates to propose for bonding during this fall’s general election?

At this point, things began to go seriously off the rails. We pick up the story here from a ruling by Superior Court Judge Robert P. Gerety Jr. in a lawsuit that was later filed by Friends adviser F.X. Flinn, of Quechee: “Without notice to the Plaintiff, or to the other involved citizens on the petition, the school board added an item to the agenda for the meeting on January 24, 2018, calling for the board to go into executive session to receive legal advice. The topic to be discussed in executive session was not stated on the agenda, or otherwise communicated to the community. At the meeting, a motion was made to go into executive session based on a finding that ‘premature public knowledge would place a person or entity at a substantial disadvantage’ and for the purpose of receiving confidential legal advice. There was no explanation given as to the basis for the finding.”

As Hongoltz-Hetling reported, the board emerged from the executive session to issue a terse statement. The petition met the signature threshold, it said, “But we must regretfully say that the actions the petition seeks to take are beyond the authority of the board to grant and therefore it cannot be placed on the ballot.” The board then voted accordingly without further comment, thus completing the brushoff.

When the Valley News  later sought the underlying documents, School Superintendent Tom DeBalsi declined but briefly clarified the legal objection: The board did not have the power to delegate to a committee a responsibility vested by law exclusively in the board. Moreover, he said, the board did not have the power to change the defective language to render it legal.

Flinn late last month went to court seeking a preliminary injunction forcing the board to put the petition on the ballot, a motion that Gerety denied. The underlying lawsuit is still pending.

Many aspects of the School Board’s conduct require explanation. Why did it refuse to have its legal counsel review the petition’s wording? Why did the board act without the common courtesy of notifying the Friends? Why was a subject of intense public interest discussed behind closed doors rather than aired in public? Why did the board not provide a more complete public explanation of its rationale for rejecting the petition? In fact, if the legal underpinning for the decision was so convincing, why not waive attorney-client privilege and release it?

Taken together, the board’s excessively secretive actions in this matter have spawned much negative speculation about its true motives. How much validity these suspicions have, we cannot say. But what can be said with authority is that the board acted in a high-handed manner and treated as an adversary a group that was merely attempting in good faith to make the democratic process work. And undermining faith in democracy is never a good day’s work for elected representatives.