Last fall Governor Malloy was quick to unfairly trash state employees for what he called the “culture of corruption.” Now that it appears fairly certain that major corporate interests were engaged in illegal lobbying activities to persuade the State Board of Education to take over Bridgeport’s schools — all we hear — is silence.
It’s not like we didn’t know that the business elite are treated differently than the rest of us.
On July 6, 2011, the Connecticut State Board of Education voted 5 to 4 to take over the Bridgeport School System by “un-electing” the elected members of the school board and appointing their own team to run the schools.
Their action, as we know today, was illegal and the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned their vote and ordered Bridgeport’s elected board members be re-instated.
Governor Malloy’s “Education Reform” bill – up for its first vote this week – still includes a provision that attempts to retroactively make the state Board’s illegal action – legal – by adding new language that says that anything that state Board of Education did with Bridgeport after July 1, 2010 – even it if was illegal – is now deemed legal.
Try that next time you get pulled over by a police man. “Don’t worry officer, I’m going to get the law changed so that anyone who went 55 miles an hour in a 30 mile an hour zone between March 15th and March 30th did not break the law.”
While the State Board of Education’s illegal takeover of the Bridgeport schools has garnered media attention, a second behind-the-scenes serious issue has not.
The second issue relates to the lobbying activity to persuade the State Board of Education to take over Bridgeport’s schools.
Connecticut’s definition of lobbying is extremely simple.
Lobbying is an act of “communicating directly or soliciting others to communicate with any official or his staff in the legislative or executive branch of government…for the purpose of influencing any legislative or administrative action…” Any individual or entity who spends at least $2,000 in time or money engaged in lobbying must register as a lobbyist.
Failure to register is a serious offense. Last November, an individual was fined $10,000 for engaging in lobbying without registering.
It turns out that among those engaged in what appears to be illegal lobbying was the representative of billionaire Stephen Mandel (Mandel hold spot of #293 on the Forbes list of the 400 richest people in America). Foundation documents reveal Meghan Lowney earned at least $108,000 from Mandel’s foundation. Two thousand dollars of time and expenses and she has become a lobbyist. Lowney also has her own consulting business and serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.
Beginning in January 2011, following an introduction made by ConnCAN’s executive director Alex Johnston, Meghan Lowney, the Executive Director of Mandel’s Zoom Foundation, began direct communications with state officials in order to persuade them to join the effort to take over the Bridgeport school system.
On January 11, 2011, Lowney sent an email to State Board member introducing herself as a representative for billionaire Steven Mandel of Greenwich.
Lowney reported that “A small group of us are strategizing a Bridgeport charter revision campaign that would result in mayoral control of the schools.”
Over the next six months, as the charter change concept died and the state takeover strategy developed, Lowney had multiple contacts with Connecticut officials.
In April Lowney wrote; “As you know, we are working behind the scenes now to support a request for state intervention” adding “I am writing to ask if you might have some time for a call next week? Nate and I would like to ask your advice about our approach and share some of our thoughts about how to make sure the intervention is short, targeted and successful.”
The “Nate” that Lowney mentions is Nate Snow, the Executive Director for Teach for America’s Connecticut Chapter.
A few months earlier Meghan Lowney, Nate Snow and Lee Bollert (Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch’s education staff person) filed the incorporation papers for a new advocacy group called Excel Bridgeport Inc. The new company was registered at Lowney’s office and she was listed as President while Nate Snow and Lee Bollert were both listed as Vice Presidents.
Over the past year Excel Bridgeport has grown into a major organization with staff, a full board of directors and a number of major contributors. Nate Snow (Executive Director, Teach for America – CT) is now listed as Board President while Meghan Lowney (Executive Director, ZOOM Foundation) holds a position on the Board of Directors.
Meanwhile, the communication between Lowney and officials continued. She wrote “we were under the impression that informal conversations would lead to informal ok from the SDE. Then, the local Board Chair would formally put forth the resolution to the BOE and then there would be a vote of the BOE and then the letter written to the SDE. None of this conversation has been held publicly yet”
And by June 2001, frustrated with the pace of the state’s takeover effort, Lowney writes “Bridgeport’s BOE has shown its extreme dysfunction over the last weeks… In the meantime we are still working on a requesting of a state intervention. All the plans are the same, but the timeline shifted b/c of the legislative session and so on.”
She adds “We are running out of time” and “we are very hopeful that the State Board would agree to intervene and appoint a Special Master. I’d like to talk to you and George Coleman about the possibilities and share some insights about the support we’ve organized in the private sector for this breakthrough work. Should the SDE act to intervene, there is excellent private partnership to be activated.”
By this point Governor Malloy’s staff has become deeply involved in the takeover discussions and on June 21, 2011 Lowney writes “do you have a few minutes tomorrow (Wednesday) for a call? … As far as the legislation goes – we were under the impression that the language in terms of authority to act was broadened to allow for other districts, not just Windham. And, with regard to the cost of the special master, that the State wasn’t going to grant Bpt any money for the intervention…and so we’ve worked to raise private pledges to support this cost.”
A day later, Lowney concludes another long email by saying “there are bright spots that lead me to believe that the State’s intervention – a targeted, short-term plan – could help. A community of concerned citizens has formed and is ready to help. But none of us will invest in this current dysfunctional system”
And finally, following the State Board of Education’s 5-4 vote, Lowney writes to one board member saying “long day with the Bpt stuff. Thank you so much for your leadership.”
During this entire period, neither Meghan Lowney nor Teach for America’s Nate Snow filed the necessary papers that would have allowed them to engage in such extensive communication with state officials.
Since then, Excel Bridgeport has ramped up its activities including raising funds from two different foundations controlled by Steven Mandel, as well as the Foundation set up by corporate executive Andy Boas. Boas is a long-time member of ConnCAN and Achievement First, the charter school management company. He is also the Chairman of the Board of Achievement First – Bridgeport Academy.
Finally, raising yet again the specter of the double standard that some people are held accountable for lobbying without registering and some are not, Excel Bridgeport continues to engage in an extensive effort to support Governor Malloy’s “Education Reform” bill.