Hugh McQuaid Photo
Steven Ecker (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

A lawyer for embattled Bridgeport School Superintendent Paul Vallas argued Monday before the state Supreme Court that it should reverse a lower court ruling in which a judge found him unqualified to keep his job.

Vallas, who has led district turnaround efforts in cities like Chicago and New Orleans, was appointed to the Bridgeport position in 2011. But he lacked the credentials necessary to be a superintendent in Connecticut.

The state modified the law and enabled him obtain the qualifications by completing a 13-month program at the University of Connecticut. When he failed to do that, the state Education Board approved an abbreviated independent study.

However, Vallas has been a divisive figure in Bridgeport, where opponents view him as an official imposed upon the city by the state Board of Education and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, Vallas’ friend. Two women, Deborah Reyes-Williams, a Bridgeport mother, and Carmen Lopez, a retired Superior Court judge, filed the complaint seeking Vallas’s ouster in April.

In a ruling on the lawsuit this summer, Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis decided that the independent study Vallas had undertaken did not satisfy the requirements set forth by the legislature and ordered him out of the position.

Vallas’s lawyer, Steven Ecker, appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court. Vallas did not attend Monday’s proceedings, but Ecker argued that the plaintiffs in the case had failed to utilize various administrative remedies before taking Vallas to court.

“The plaintiffs were not interested in ensuring that Mr. Vallas had the proper training. They wanted him out, they were his opponents,” he said.

Ecker said the course that Vallas took satisfied the flexible requirements dictated by the legislature.

“This gentleman demonstrated complete mastery of the subject. I don’t think there’s any question about it,” he said.

Norman Pattis, a defense attorney representing the plaintiffs, called the program a “sham,” which Vallas had a hand in developing. He said it was a “small wonder” Vallas was able to master it.

Pattis asked where else the plaintiffs were supposed to go, if not to court.

“I think we are well within our grounds to argue that this is a farce. This is a mockery of what the legislature intended,” he said.

Pattis likened Vallas’s accreditation process to a would-be lawyer bypassing the bar examination and being permitted to practice law with the blessing of a senior attorney. He said the University of Connecticut never approved the course.

During the hearing, Chief Justice Chase Rogers said the law only required the university to “offer” the program and did not explicitly state that the school need to “approve” it.

“When you create a special program for special friends and let them design it themselves and complete it in record time, is that ‘offered?” Pattis asked.

Ecker said there was no pre-existing educational leadership course for Vallas to take. He said the legislature kept the requirements flexible to attract new talent to Connecticut as part of an overall education reform effort. Rogers asked if it wasn’t appropriate to tailor the education program to the individual superintendent, especially if the official was hired to turn around a school system.

After the court recessed, Ecker said he was pleased with how Monday’s proceedings went.

“I was thrilled that the court was engaged, was very well prepared, and it struck me that it was asking just the right questions,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Carmen Lopez and Deborah Reyes-Williams (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Lopez, a former judge and one of the plaintiffs to the lawsuit, said she was not concerned by the justices’ questions. She said they must carefully consider the case. Lopez said the court will decide whether the state adheres to the rule of law, or allows “politics and preferential treatment” to prevail.

“I think if courts cannot check what I believe is an abuse of power by the executive branch here, we’re way down on that slippery slope,” Lopez said.

The Supreme Court has no strict timeline to arrive at a decision. However, Vallas’ position also may be threatened by more local forces. Earlier this month the slate of Bridgeport Board of Education candidates who were supportive of Vallas and Democratic Mayor Bill Finch were defeated by candidates who oppose the administration’s recent education reform efforts.

Ecker said he did not know what would happen to the case if the city school board took some action to terminate Vallas’ contract.

“All I can do is deal with the status quo, the present situation,” he said.