Another effort to stamp out democracy in Bridgeport – What is it with Mayor Finch and the Charter School Industry?

What is it with Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch and Connecticut’s Charter School Industry?

We already know these people have a problem with democracy, but here we go again!

First Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch and his Corporate Education Reform Industry allies persuaded Governor Malloy’s administration to illegally take over the Bridgeport School System.

The Connecticut Supreme Court ended up intervening and forcing the state of Connecticut to hand Bridgeport’s Schools back to the voters of Bridgeport.

As a result of Malloy’s illegal action, the Supreme Court even had to order a new election to fill the seats on Bridgeport’s democratically elected Board of Education.

But not to let a little thing like the law stand in the way, Bridgeport Mayor Finch and his supporters then tried to jam through a change in Bridgeport’s City Charter that would have completely eliminated a democratically elected Board of Education.

Mayor Finch’s solution was to replace democracy with a board of education appointed by him.

The Charter Revision campaign failed, but not before Finch and his Charter School buddies spent a record breaking amount of money.

Political Action Committees affiliated with the Corporate Education Reform Industry spent over $560,000 trying to convince Bridgeport voters to give up their democratic rights.

Major contributors to the anti-democracy campaign included the Charter School front group Excel Bridgeport ($101,803); Michele Rhee and the charter school advocacy group StudentsFirst ($185,480); Achievement First Bridgeport Chairman Andy Boas’ personal foundation ($14,000); ConnCAN ($14,000); Harbor Yard Sports & Entertainment ($14,442); Pullman & Comely law firm ($7,000); Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg ($25,000); Achievement First and ConnCAN founder Jonathan Sackler ($50,000); and a who’s who of the Bridgeport’s business community.

After failing to persuade Bridgeport voters to hand their schools over to a non-elected Board of Education, Charter School Team Finch went on to lose both a Democratic Primary and the General Election for the Bridgeport Board of Education.

But apparently Finch and the Charter School elite that have been targeting Bridgeport over the past few years just won’t rest until they actually destroy democracy in Bridgeport

Their next target appears to be Bridgeport’s Parent Advisory Council, an organization that has been around for 45 years and has become a strong and effective voice for Bridgeport’s parents and students.

And an effective voice for parents is apparently just too much democracy and power for the Finch loyalists who are now engaged in an undemocratic strategy to derail this important vehicle for parent involvement in Bridgeport’s schools.

Late last Friday a “special notice” was sent out announcing that the Bridgeport Board of Education would be holding a “Special Meeting” to deal with the Bridgeport Parent Advisory Council tomorrow – Monday, February 23, 2015.

The notice for a special meeting comes despite the fact that the Bridgeport Board of Education already has a regular meeting scheduled for 6:30 P.M.

Issuing an updated agenda would have been easy enough, but the pro-charter school, anti-democracy crowd went with the “Special Meeting” tactic.

Why would they want a “Special Meeting” instead of taking up whatever clandestine effort they are going to attempt at the Bridgeport Board of Education’s regular Monday Meeting an hour and a half later?

Because under their rules, the public is not allowed an opportunity to speak to the Board of Education at Special Meetings, whereas at regular meetings public input is allowed.

No really…

While it appears true that we are called the United States of America where the notion of freedom and democracy is supposed to be among our most cherished fundamental and inalienable rights, but when it comes to the Charter School Industry’s agenda and tactics, nothing is sacred.

Apparently “simply” undermining democracy isn’t enough for the charter school advocates.

They are not only engaged in a strategy to undermine Bridgeport’s Parent Advisory Council, but they want to do it in a way that completely and utterly destroys the notion that Bridgeport’s parents even have Freedom of Speech or the right to be heard before their government takes action against them.

Adding further insult to the already absurd farce is that the “Special meeting” is scheduled for 5:00 PM, a time many parents and community members are still working or are busy fulfilling child raising duties and unable to make it to a hastily scheduled Board of Education Meeting.

The agenda for the “Special Meeting” is ominously entitled, “Discussion and Possible Action on District PAC Leadership.”

The agenda item being a not so hidden reference that the Board of Education may take “action” against Bridgeport’s Parent Advisory Council.

The entire development is just one more disgusting reminder that while we claim to be fighting the enemies of freedom abroad, some of the most serious threats to our American principles can be found right here at home.

If you happen to know Mayor Finch or his Charter School Allies…

Oh, never mind, it is no use talking to them, they simply don’t care about notions like democracy and Freedom of Speech.

And tomorrow they will try to prove that point yet again.

To them, the end always justifies the means and the Corporate Education Reform Industry won’t stop until they truly destroy public education in our country.

Here is to the hope that our fellow citizens in Bridgeport can fight back against the anti-democracy movement that is out to get them.

Forces behind effort to eliminate democratically elected Bridgeport Board of Education donate to Kenneth Moales Jr.

Let’s hear it for less democracy!

Just days before the voters of Bridgeport overwhelmingly defeated Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch’s bizarre 2012 proposal to eliminate the democratically elected board of education in Bridgeport and replace it with one appointed by the Mayor, millionaire charter school champion Jonathan Sackler quietly wrote a personal check for $50,000 to help pay for the final set of mailings and advertisements designed to persuade Bridgeport voters to give up their right to vote for those who oversee their City’s public schools.

Now Jonathan Sackler and many of the same pro-charter, anti-public education, pro-corporate elite are pumping money into Reverend Kenneth Moales Jr.’s campaign for State Senate with the goal of helping Moales qualify for a taxpayer-funded state campaign grant that he would use to pay for his campaign in the February 24th 2015 state senate special election.

It won’t come as any surprise to those who have watched the ongoing effort to undermine and denigrate the people of Bridgeport that the very same individuals and groups that worked so hard to take away democracy in Bridgeport and keep Paul Vallas in charge of Bridgeport’s schools are now working overtime to put Moales – a Malloy/Finch ally and disgraced former chairman of the Bridgeport Board of Education – into the Connecticut State Senate.

The corporate elite, education reform industry and charter school advocates know that Kenneth Moales Jr. will be a safe vote for their anti-public education agenda, even if it means hurting the people of Bridgeport.

Jonathan Sackler, whose pharmaceutical company makes OxyContin, is a founding member of Achievement First, Inc., the large Charter School Management Company with schools in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island.  Sacker is also the corporate education reform industry advocate who formed ConnCAN, the charter school advocacy group.  Sackler was one of the largest donors to Finch’s anti-democracy effort and now he tops the list for Moales as well.

Another key player for Moales is Andy Boas, the Chairman of the Board for Achievement First – Bridgeport, a member of the ConnCAN Board of Directors and the founder of The Charter Oak Challenge Foundation.  In 2012 Boa was also one of the largest contributors to Finch’s campaign to do away with an elected school board in Bridgeport.

And now Boas and his wife, like Sacker and his wife, have both donated the maximum amount to Moales’ campaign.

In total, more than half a dozen of Moales’ largest campaign contributions have come from members of the Achievement First, Inc. or ConnCAN Boards of Directors.

Yet another major player in Finch’s failed charter revision effort was Excel Bridgeport, Inc. the corporate funded education reform group that lobbied for the illegal state takeover of Bridgeport’s schools and then dumped more than $101,000 to support of Finch’s charter revision effort to do away with a democratically elected board of education.  Excel Bridgeport’s founder, Megan Lowney, who is also one of Malloy’s political appointees, recently gave Moales the maximum donation allowed under law.

Others who helped pay for Finch’s failed anti-democracy campaign and are now stepping up with donations for Moales’ campaign include;

Paul Vallas and his wife (now re-located back to Illinois)

Robert Trefrey

Trefrey is the former President/CEO of Bridgeport Hospital.  Trefrey chaired the illegal board that was handed control of Bridgeport’s schools by Governor Malloy’s administration.  When the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that Malloy’s attempt to take over the Bridgeport Schools was illegal, Malloy appointed Trefrey to the State Board of Education’s Committee that oversees the state’s technical high schools.  Bridgeport Hospital gave Finch’s charter revision campaign the maximum allowable donation, even at a time it was laying off staff.  Trefrey has not given Moales the maximum allowable contribution.

Jeremiah Grace

Grace is the Connecticut State Director of the Northeast Charter School Network.  The organization not only lobbies for more charter schools but helps private charter school management companies develop applications to get public funds.

Lee Bollert

Bollert was an education advisor to Mayor Bill Finch and helped create Excel Bridgeport, Inc.

William McCullough

McCullough serves with Moales on the Board of Directors of Steve Perry’s proposed Bridgeport charter school.

Kadisha Coates 

Coates is a charter school advocate, member of Families for Excellent Schools and is the newest member of the Bridgeport Board of Education. Coates and her husband are both donors to Moales.

Liz Torres

Torres is a member of the Great Oaks Charter School Board of Directors.

Joshua Thompson

Thompson is the former Finch aide and Vallas assistant who posted on his on-line resume that he was the Deputy Mayor for Education in Bridgeport, even though he was no such thing. Thomson is now an executive New Leaders Fund, a corporate education reform advocacy group in New York City.  Brandon Clark, who ran on the Finch slate for Board of Education with Moales in 2013 but lost, also works with the New Leaders Fund with Thompson and also recently donated to Moales’ campaign.

Other Moales donors include a number of employees, lobbyists and consultants associated with ConnCAN, Achievement First, Inc. and other charter schools organizations in Hartford, New Haven and out-of state.

In order to get the full taxpayer funded grant of Moales has filed the paperwork to get a state taxpayer funded grant.  In order to get the money he must raise a total of $11,250, of which 225 must come from people living in Bridgeport or Stratford.  Depending on the number of signatures collected, Moales could receive a public grant of up to $71,000

Although Moales submitted the paperwork to get a grant last Friday, a review of his public financing report reveals a variety of problems and suspicious donations that could prevent him from qualifying for the public funding.

Note:  A special thanks to Maria Pereira who also researched Moales’ recent campaign finance report and provided her findings to the “Only in Bridgeport” blog.

Commissioner Pryor, can you tell us which laws are “laws” and which are “bureaucratic technicalities”?

It looked pretty simple.   Governor Malloy and his Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, wrote up a special law to allow Paul Vallas to serve as Bridgeport’s superintendent of schools, despite the fact that Vallas wasn’t certified to hold the position nor has he ever taken an education course.

The law required that Vallas works as an acting superintendent for one year and complete a “school leadership program” at a Connecticut university or college.

Instead of enrolling and completing a school leadership program, Paul Vallas took a single independent study course and pretended it was a program.

Last Friday, when Connecticut Judge Bellis ruled that Paul Vallas and Stefan Pryor had violated Connecticut law and that Paul Vallas did not have the credentials necessary to serve as a superintendent in Connecticut; Commissioner Pryor was one of the first to blast the judge and the ruling.

Pryor told the media “We disagree with and are disappointed by the court’s decision…”

Although the law that Pryor helped write said “school leadership program” apparently in Pryor’s mind it meant an” independent study course” and rather than a school leadership program.

So clearly, some laws are meant to be laws and therefore, as a nation of laws, they must be followed while other laws are apparently more like technicalities or optional guidelines.

Since Stefan Pryor graduated from both Yale University and Yale’s Law School, perhaps he could shed some light on the issue for the rest of us.

Which laws are laws and which are bureaucratic technicalities.

For guidance he might want to rely on the pronouncements of other “education reformers.”

Jennifer Alexander, the CEO of the charter school advocacy group called the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) issued the following statement after the court ruling.

“Today’s ruling is unfortunate…it was made based on a bureaucratic technicality…We’re hopeful that in the end, justice will prevail and Superintendent Vallas will be able to continue his work to help ensure a better future for kids in Bridgeport.”

Maria Zambrano, the executive director of Excel Bridgeport, a corporate-funded Vallas fan club also released a comment after the ruling.

“This is an unfortunate ruling… As a community, we also need to have a conversation about what qualifications are necessary to lead a struggling urban school district. Is it a piece of paper declaring someone “certified?” Or is it a track record of results for improving the educational outcomes of students? We believe it to be the latter.”

The Connecticut Council for Education Reform wrote, “That’s why CCER advocates for changing Connecticut’s law to allow the Commissioner of Education to waive the statutory requirements for superintendent certification to allow people like Mr. Vallas to help turn around Connecticut’s lowest-performing school districts. The current statutory scheme serves to protect the interests of adults in our state, instead of prioritizing the interests of 200,000 children who attend schools in Connecticut’s lowest performing districts.”

The renowned chairman of the Bridgeport Board of Education, Kenneth Moales, told the media;

“Only in Bridgeport would the likes of Mr. Paul Vallas not be qualified to serve as superintendent… This ruling crosses the line;”

And Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, who described Vallas as a knight on a white horse and complained that people were throwing mud on the horse explained;

“We disagree entirely with the substance of the judge’s decision. We believe it goes against the great weight of facts presented at trial and the applicable law.”

So Commissioner Pryor, you testified at the trial.  You know the facts.  You know the applicable law because you helped to write it.

What again makes this law not a law?

And for those who want to read a bit about Vallas’ real “record of success,” check out some of the following links

Uh-Oh. New Orleans “Miracle” Crumbles

The Vallas Record in Philadelphia, Revisited

Why Is Philadelphia in Crisis?

Insiders’ Report on History of Chicago Teachers Union

Is Chicago a National Model for School Reform?

Connecticut TFA Director wants to open a charter school…in Bridgeport

Yup, the Connecticut Director of Teach for America has submitted an application to open a charter school in Bridgeport.

Nate Snow arrived in Bridgeport in 2007 as a new TFA recruit.

Today he serves as the Executive Director for the Connecticut Chapter of Teach for America and President of the Board of Directors of Excel Bridgeport, Inc., a corporate funded education reform organization that he co-founded with Meghan Lowney, an aide to billionaire, hedge fund owner Steven Mandel.

Excel Bridgeport serves as the primary advocacy group supporting Governor Malloy, Mayor Bill Finch and “Superintendent of Schools” Paul Vallas’ education reform policies.

After graduating from Texas A&M University, Snow joined TFA and taught for two years in Bridgeport.  He then joined TFA’s fundraising operation and then made an unsuccessful bid as a Republican candidate for the Bridgeport Board of Education.

Snow and Vallas recently signed a three-year contract between the Bridgeport Board of Education and Teach for America for $777,000, although the contract was never provided to the Board for their review and approval.  Team Vallas is claiming he has the authority to sign the contract without Board involvement.

And meanwhile, despite having no experience in school administration, Snow is the lead name on a charter school application that is pending before Paul Vallas and the Bridgeport Board of Education.

Snow’s proposal is to create a Montessori Charter School for children between the ages of three and thirteen.

As to Snow’s connection to TFA and Excel Bridgeport, a recent CT Post article reported that “The charter school idea, he said, is his own.”

According to their proposal, “Whittier’s Montessori program is inspired by the design and implementation of Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet School (AFMMS), a high-performing public Montessori school in Hartford, Connecticut. Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet School has distinguished itself by meeting high standards of student achievement through a meticulous, fully implemented Montessori program.”

Stephen Adamowski, who according to emails acquired through a Freedom of Information request, worked with Snow around Malloy’s education reform bill, was a strong proponent of Hartford’s Montessori school and now, as Malloy’s Special Master for Windham and New London has been working hard to get Windham to switch one of its elementary schools over to a Montessori school.

In the new Montessori charter school application, the proponents explain how they developed the plan saying, “Prior to preparing for this submission, none of the founders had worked with a Montessori school, but they knew that it was a good brand with an excellent reputation. Starting with a visit to the acclaimed Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet School in Hartford, then undertaking conversations with parents who have children in private Montessori school in Fairfield County, and ending with informal consultations with Montessori leaders from around the country, the Founding members became convinced that Montessori should be an option for all children in Bridgeport. Nate Snow contacted the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS), located in Hartford, for further information on what was necessary to start a public Montessori school. These discussions led to an eventual contract with NCMPS to assist in school design and to aid in writing the charter application.”

The charter school proposal aims to start with 69 students next fall and reach 209 students in its fifth year.  Their budget calls for expending $1.7 million in year one and at least $3.8 million in year five.

While state charter schools get their money primarily from a state grant, Snow and his colleagues are trying to open a “local” charter school, meaning the funds would come mostly from Bridgeport’s school budget, with an extra $3,000 per student coming from a new state “local charter grant” that was part of Malloy’s education reform law.  Malloy’s education reform law also included a series of $500,000 “start-up grants” that charter schools could get from the state.  Snow and company are counting on getting one of those grants, as well.

In addition, the cost of transportation and special education costs would be paid for by the Bridgeport Board of Education.

Bridgeport is already well into the 60 day local charter review process.  The application, if approved, would then go to Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor and the state Board of Education.

As to the various players behind the proposal, Wait What? readers may recall that starting in January 2011, Meghan Lowney, Nate Snow and Excel Bridgeport worked to persuade the Connecticut State Board of Education to take over the Bridgeport School System.  Over the course of the six months leading up to the State Board of Education’s illegal takeover, Lowney, Snow and Excel Bridgeport engaged in numerous communications with state officials.

Despite their ongoing lobbying, both before and during the illegal takeover and throughout the effort to persuade legislators to support Malloy’s education reform bill, neither Lowney, Snow nor Excel Bridgeport registered to lobby with the Connecticut Office of State Ethics, as required by law.

More than two weeks after the end of the 2012 Legislative session, Excel Bridgeport finally filed the required papers, listing Jorge Cabrera as the organization’s lead lobbyist.

Excel Bridgeport, a group initially called the Bridgeport Partnership for School Success, Inc., was created in December 2010 and then changed its name to Excel Bridgeport Inc. in September 2011.

According to its incorporation papers, Meghan Lowney, the Executive Director of the Zoom Foundation, (the personal foundation of Fairfield County billionaire Stephen Mandel), was registered as Excel Bridgeport, Inc.’s founding president and Nathan Snow, the Executive Director of Connecticut’s Teach for America Chapter served as the organization’s founding vice president.

Snow then took over the role as Excel’s president.   A board was also created made up of Jonathan Hayes (Executive, Meetinghouse Productions), Joel Green (Partner, Green & Gross, PC), Robert Francis (Executive Director, RYASAP), Carl Horton, Jr. (Consultant, Accenture), Scott Hughes (City Librarian, Bridgeport Public Library), Meghan Lowney (Executive Director, ZOOM Foundation) and Joseph McGee (Vice President, Fairfield County Business Council).  Like Snow, Francis, the Executive Director of RYASAP, also has a contract with the Bridgeport Board of Education.

As of now, Lowney and Snow have still not registered to lobby despite their ongoing efforts to influence public policy.

Meanwhile, faced with inadequate state resources, and Mayor Finch’s need to come up with $3.2 million more just to meet the state’s minimum local expenditure law, it will be interesting to see if Paul Vallas, the Bridgeport Board of Education and Commissioner Stefan Pryor divert dollars to their colleague Nate Snow and his proposal for a new Montessori charter school.

Win or Lose Bridgeport’s Board Of Education battle, Finch has probably lost the war

While most of the attention will be focused on the vote for President and members of the U.S. Senate, Congress, State Senate and State House of Representatives tomorrow, there will be plenty of eyes cast on what happens with the charter revision referendum in Bridgeport.

Mayor Bill Finch, “education reformers” and elite members of the corporate community are spending a record amount to try and convince Bridgeport voters that it is in their best interests to give up their democratic rights to select members of the Bridgeport Board of Education.

Instead, Mayor Finch and his followers want voters to believe that skipping democracy and simply allowing him to choose who will serve on the “citizen” board overseeing Bridgeport’s schools will produce a better education system.

This from a team that brought in Paul Vallas, the $229,000, part-time, “education reformer extraordinaire, ”  superintendent of schools, whose primary claim to fame, upon arrival in Bridgeport,  was to sign more than $12 million in no-bid contracts, including contracts hiring many “consultants” who actually worked for his private consulting company, The Vallas Group.

Throughout history, there have been certain moments in which a decision was made that may have sounded “good” at the time, put led to disaster and debacles of historic proportions.

Imagine the strategists who told Custer in 1876 that he’d have no problem pacifying the savages at Little Big Horn, or the military strategists who suggested that they just drop allied troops on the shores of Gallipoli in 1915.

Similar moments have arisen in politics.  For example, the brain trust who told President Richard Nixon, that it was a good idea to have thugs break into Democratic Headquarters, and that no one would ever figure out who did it.

Or the McCain campaign aides who told the Senator, pick Sarah Palin of Alaska to be the Republican candidate for Vice President, she’ll give the party just the boost it needs to beat that Obama guy.

Knowing what I know about Connecticut politics, Bridgeport’s Charter Revision Referendum, including the language doing away with an elected Board of Education and replacing it with one appointed by the Mayor, may pass tomorrow, but the repercussions of Finch’s move will haunt him and will undermine any dreams of grandeur he may harbor for a statewide political career.

Why? Because Connecticut voters believe in education, they believe in democracy and they have had more than their fair share of politicians who seek to use their office to provide financial support to their friends and supporters.

The number one conclusion that I’ve reached over the last nine months is that if Bill Finch had listened to public education advocates like Judge Carmen Lopez, and the Working Family Party members of the Board of Education, instead of his team of miscreants, he could have done a lot more to put Bridgeport’s education system back on track while creating an image for himself as someone who is actually dedicated to broad-based educational opportunity and achievement.

Instead, Captain Finch has turned his ship over to anti-union, anti-teacher and pro-privatization forces that are dismantling public education as we know it.

In direct opposition to the needs of children and taxpayers, Finch’s ship has transported a cadre of greedy, self-serving and unwelcome enemies, people and corporations that are more interested in seeking ways to turn our public schools into private money-making ventures.

To achieve those goals, they’ve decided that a democratically elected board of education, even in a City where the Democratic machine will always control six of the nine seats, is a threat.  So instead of building consensus and finding common ground, they are moving to simply do away with the perceived problem that democracy might cause for their agenda.

We’ll see tomorrow whether their money can buy them the outcome they desire, but their message and methods are an anathema to the people of Connecticut, and Finch has made the terrible mistake of choosing to serve as their Patron Saint.

Should Finch ever attempt to seek office outside the borders of the City of Bridgeport, he’ll find his approach to education and democracy are not appreciated.

Connecticut has 166 public school districts, 169 if you add in the three quasi-public academies.  There are 663 public elementary schools, 173 public middle schools and 170 public high schools.  Every day, more than 51,000 teachers and 40,000 professional and support staff go to work helping to provide over half a million students with the knowledge and skills to succeed.

The state’s greatest natural resource is its people, and in Connecticut, that means an educated workforce.

Nearly 87 percent of our citizens have graduated high school, the highest percent in the nation.  Almost 36 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is 30 percent higher than the national average.

And Connecticut’s parents understand the importance of education.  The state’s high school graduation rate is over 82 percent, the fifth highest, and well above the national average of 75%.

According to most recent data, 37,904 students graduated from Connecticut public high schools, and more than half of these graduates went on to attend a four-year college or university.

Another 24 percent of the graduates continued their education at two-year colleges or other educational institutions. A record 3 out of every 4 Connecticut high school graduates continued on with some type of educational program.

And nearly every single one of those school districts is guided by a group of citizens elected by their fellow voters.  Citizens whose job it is to preserve, protect and enhance the quality of education in their communities while weighing the very real financial limitations that face many communities.

At the same time, many of Connecticut’s urban school districts do face unparalleled challenges.  That is because poverty, language barriers and the need for special education services are the greatest predictors of academic success as measured by standardized test scores.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that communities with politically appointed boards of education do better than communities that have boards of education that are elected by the people.

Although we can certainly guess that the politically appointed ones have more success in driving resources and contracts to politically connected individuals and corporations.

Even when Hartford went for a mayoral appointed board, it recognized the importance of having some members elected, as well as appointed.

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch has made a huge political blunder and by associating himself with in-state and out-of-state corporate education reformers, he has ensured that he will be seen as one of Connecticut’s leading anti-public education, anti-union and anti-teacher politicians.

It would be a recipe for disaster for any Democrat, but particularly one from Connecticut.

The fact is that Bill Finch will undoubtedly pay a political price for failing to listen to what the pro-public education advocates have been saying, but sadly, it is a small price compared to the price Bridgeport’s public school students have had to pay as a result of the City’s misguided and mean-spirited policies.

Regardless of tomorrow’s vote, it is not too late for Finch and his political operatives to put aside their short-term political goals and actually open their ears and HEAR from those who put students ahead of politics.

But if the past year is any indication, they’ll continue to pursue the failed and destructive path they have been walking upon.

League of Women Voters and the lobby group Excel Bridgeport co-hosting forum?

A controversy has developed surrounding a proposed August 22, 2012 candidate forum, at which Bridgeport’s Board of Education candidates, would have an opportunity to debate and discuss the issues prior to the September 5th special election that will finally ensure that Bridgeport’s citizens are represented by a democratically elected Board of Education.

Yesterday, the two candidates from the Working Families Party, Barbara Pouchet and John Bagley, announced that they would not participate in the forum because it is being co-hosted by Excel Bridgeport, Inc.

The Working Family candidates said that participating would “serve to legitimize an organization whose objective is to eliminate the right of Bridgeport’s parents, taxpayers and citizens to cast ballots for members of our Board of Education.”

There is no doubt that Excel Bridgeport was a leader in the effort to convince the State of Connecticut to take over the Bridgeport School System and remove the democratically elected members of Bridgeport’s school board.  In addition, Excel Bridgeport actively lobbied on behalf of Governor Malloy’s “education reform” bill and the organization has also spent significant resources in support for Mayor Bill Finch’s efforts to change Bridgeport’s Charter, by eliminating the elected board of education and replacing it was an appointed board that would allow stronger mayoral control over the education budget and school issues.

In response to the news that the two Working Family candidates were not going to participate, Maria Zambrano, Excel Bridgeport’s Executive Director, maintained their stance that they are simply seeking “to provide Bridgeport voters and community members an opportunity to hear directly from all Board of Education candidates before the September 4th election. All BOE candidates were invited and encouraged to attend.”

But of course, that argument misses the point.

No one should deny Excel Bridgeport the right to hold as many candidate forums as it wants, inviting and encouraging whomever they want to attend.

The real issue is whether the League of Women Voters should be co-hosting a candidate forum with a group like Excel Bridgeport.

According to their history and mission statement, “The League of Women Voters is a citizens’ organization that has fought since 1920 to improve our government and engage all citizens in the decisions that impact their lives…The League is nonpartisan, which means we don’t support or oppose candidates for public office. However, we are well-known for hosting candidate debates and forums.  We undertake this, and other important election work, because we believe deeply that the public should hear different views on the issues facing our communities and our nation. An honest and respectful sharing of ideas is vital to the functioning of American democracy.”

The League’s dedication to its mission is so great that in 1988, the League actually took the unprecedented step of “withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates.”  At the time, Nancy Newuman, the League’ president, said they were taking this action because; “the League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the Working Family Party candidates should or should not attend a forum co-sponsored by Excel Bridgeport, but there is simply no doubt that Excel Bridgeport has played a leadership role in Connecticut’s “education reform” movement, an effort that is systematically anti-teacher, anti-union and anti-democratic, and instead, dedicated to promoting the corporatization and privatization of public education.

Not only has Excel Bridgeport spent tens of thousands of dollars seeking to persuade public officials to take particular actions, but during the recent Supreme Court on the Bridgeport takeover, Excel Bridgeport submitted a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to allow the state’s illegal takeover to stand, thereby preventing the people of Bridgeport from having democratically elected representatives.

While Excel Bridgeport’s participation is the candidate debate is objectionable and I too would refuse to participate if I was a candidate, the real shock is that the League of Women voters would lower its standards and co-host a public forum with a group that is diametrically opposed to the legacy that has always guided the League and its actions.

The controversy is that the League has yet to withdraw as a co-sponsor or ask Excel Bridgeport to withdraw so that a true League of Women Voter’s based forum can go forward.

For more background check out The Only in Bridgeport blog:

What is the “education reform” group Excel Bridgeport Inc. thinking?

Excel Bridgeport Inc. is back in the news and their activities remind us of a few unanswered questions that still must be addressed:

Do they believe that they are above the law?  Are they so ignorant that they don’t know the law?  Or are they so naive that they think that even if they violate the law, no one will notice?

Recently, Carmen L. Lopez, a retired Superior Court judge, raised a series of concerns about Excel Bridgeport, a corporate funded education advocacy group that has been actively pushing an “education reform” agenda.

Over the last eighteen months, Excel Bridgeport and its leaders worked hard to promote the State’s illegal takeover of the Bridgeport Schools.  They actively supported Governor Malloy’s “education reform” bill.  And since its inception, Excel Bridgeport has been particularly busy organizing on behalf of Mayor Finch’s proposal to dramatically enhance his powerbase and authority by transferring control of Bridgeport’s education system to the Mayor’s Office, rather than have it run by a locally elected Board of Education.

Judge Lopez’s letter to the editor in the Connecticut Post traced Excel Bridgeport’s history and the individuals behind its operation.  See

Agree or disagree with Excel’s positions, there is no question that Judge Lopez was factually correct and her description of Excel Bridgeport as a politically motivated advocacy group is, in fact, exactly what it is.

In a defensive response to Judge Lopez’s letter, Maria Zambrano, Excel Bridgeport’s executive director completely failed to respond to the issues Judge Lopez raised.  See

Instead, the executive director fell back on the traditional rhetoric, claiming that Excel Bridgeport “partners with parents, youth and community members to create a movement of people who are committed to improving the quality of education for all Bridgeport students.”

The response could not have been more gratuitous.  No one questions that Excel Bridgeport is working to create a “movement to change Bridgeport,” the question is whether they are following Connecticut law and have they properly revealed any conflicts of interest that the group or its leader’s may have.

As background, Excel was incorporated on Dec. 15, 2010 by Meghan Lowney (Zoom Foundation), Nathan Snow (Teach for America) and Lee Bollert (who works for Mayor Finch and advises him on education policy).

Today, in addition to Lowney and Snow, Excel’s Board of Directors includes Jonathan Hayes, Joel Green, Robert Francis, Carl Horton Jr. and Joseph McGee.

Although Meghan Lowney, Nathan Snow and Excel Bridgeport were very active in the effort to persuade state officials to take over Bridgeport’s schools and then in support of Governor Malloy’s “education reform” bill, none of them registered to lobby with the Office of State Ethics.  Lobbying is defined as spending at least $2,000 in time or money communicating or urging others to communicate with state officials about a particular policy or action.

Excel Bridgeport can claim its goal is to help Bridgeport’s parents, but to date, they continue to duck the fact that Lowney, Snow and the organization itself appear to have spent more than $2,000 in time or money engaged in lobbying and should have registered with the appropriate state agency.  For an example see  Lobbying without being registered is punishable by fines of up to $10,000 per incident.

One of the other most important questions surrounding Excel Bridgeport is whether anyone associated with the organization has a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest that has not been properly revealed.

For example, according to official Bridgeport documents, Excel Director Robert Francis, who also serves as the executive director of RYASAP Inc., and Paul Vallas, Bridgeport’s part-time Superintendent of Schools, signed a contract about a month ago, on June 21, 2012, for $206,250.

In return for that money, RYASAP Inc. will “create, staff and manage ‘The Student Space’ student support and leadership centers” at Bridgeport’s high schools.

Those centers may very well be a vital asset and RYASAP may be the best entity to run them, but nowhere on Excel Bridgeport’s website or in their public materials do they reveal that one of their Directors is directly involved in a contract that will move $200,000 in taxpayer funds to that Director’s organization.

Second, Nathan Snow, Excel Bridgeport’s President readily identifies himself as the Director of the Connecticut Chapter of Teach for America. However, nowhere does Excel Bridgeport reveal that Snow and Teach for America have signed an $87,000 contract between the City of Bridgeport and Snow’s organization.

Other Excel Bridgeport Directors also have personal ties to Mayor Finch, the City of Bridgeport or other Excel Directors.

For example, the spouse of Excel Director Carl Horton Jr. was appointed Bridgeport’s Health Director by Mayor Bill Finch in 2010.  Although she may not be presently serving in that capacity, it would have been appropriate for Excel Bridgeport to reveal the connection.

Furthermore, in addition to serving as an Excel Bridgeport Director, Joel Green is the Chairman of Operation Hope’s Board of Directors.  Meghan Lowney, the founder of Excel Bridgeport, worked at Operation Hope for 16 years, including serving as that organization’s executive director for a decade.

While some of these connections may be important and others may not be, any group involved in public advocacy, especially one associated with promoting an agenda that directly impacts children, has a special obligation to reveal real or perceived conflicts of  interest.

As Judge Lopez notes in her letter to the editor, time and time again, Excel Bridgeport as failed to do so.

The entire situation resurrects that question as to why Excel Bridgeport Inc. and its leadership seem unable or unwilling to abide by some of the most basic rules and regulations associated with advocating on behalf of their agenda?

Update on Excel Bridgeport Inc. – still violating the law?

Hundreds, even thousands of groups successfully follow Connecticut’s ethics and lobbing laws, so why do Excel Bridgeport, Inc. and some of the biggest corporate leaders in Fairfield County have such a hard time complying with the rules the rest of us have to live by?

Since it was incorporated, much of what Excel Bridgeport has been doing could be considered lobbying.

Beginning in January 2011, Meghan Lowney actively worked to persuade the Connecticut State Board of Education to attempt its illegal takeover of the Bridgeport School System.  In fact, over the six months leading up to the State Board of Education’s illegal takeover, Lowney engaged in numerous communications with state officials and yet neither Lowney, Nate Snow (Chair, CT Teach for America) or Excel Bridgeport ever registered to lobby Connecticut state government, as required.

During the recent 2012 legislative session, Excel Bridgeport, as well as its leadership and staff worked hard to pass Governor Malloy’s “education reform” bill, as well as more targeted efforts to help the Bridgeport’s illegal Board of Education.  Despite that, Excel Bridgeport, its directors and its staff failed to register in January, February, March, April and most of May.

More than two weeks after the end of the 2012 Legislative session, Excel Bridgeport finally filed the required papers, listing Jorge Cabrera as the organization’s lead lobbyist.  The initial paperwork  said that the group’s executive director, Maria Zambrano, was also going to file the necessary paperwork, but so far she has failed to and her application is listed as “still pending.”

Although the group registered, it has still failed to fill out the required reporting documents.

Furthermore, neither Meghan Lowney nor Nate Snow has registered, although they were the two who had the most significant contact with state officials.

For the record, the Bridgeport Partnership for School Success, Inc. was created in December 2010 and then changed its name to Excel Bridgeport Inc. in September 2011.

According to its incorporation papers, Meghan Lowney, the Executive Director of the Zoom Foundation (the personal foundation of a Fairfield County billionaire) was registered as Excel Bridgeport, Inc.’s founding president and Nathan Snow, the Executive Director of Connecticut’s Teach for America Chapter served as the organization’s founding vice president.  Lowney’s work and home addresses, in Fairfield, were used as the organization’s legal address.

Although they apparently didn’t take the time to properly amend their legal documents, at some point over the last couple of years, Nathan Snow became Excel’s president, Jonathan Hayes (Executive, Meetinghouse Productions) became treasurer and Joel Green (Partner, Green & Gross, PC) became secretary of Excel Bridgeport, Inc.

Meanwhile, the company’s directors became Robert Francis (Executive Director, RYASAP), Carl Horton, Jr. (Consultant, Accenture), Scott Hughes (City Librarian, Bridgeport Public Library), Meghan Lowney (Executive Director, ZOOM Foundation) and Joseph McGee (Vice President, Fairfield County Business Council).

Even after repeated columns about this issue, Excel Bridgeport Inc. continues to engage in activities that a reasonable person would consider lobbying.

Earlier this summer, Excel Bridgeport Inc. and the Bridgeport Public Library announced the “Great Bus Tour for Better Bridgeport Schools.”  The effort, which included at least five sessions around the City, included one and a half hour “education” programs and refreshments.

According to Jorge Cabrera, Excel’s community organizer, Excel Bridgeport co-sponsored the event with the Bridgeport Library saying “We are very excited about this tour as we engage Bridgeport parents regarding improving the public schools. We firmly believe that change can happen and that our schools can be a model of success. We anticipate a vigorous discussion around the issues of education change but know that if parents have an honest facilitator who can help them carve out a “space” in which they can grow as leaders, learn to advocate for their children and city and are supported that they can achieve significant, systemic, long-term change in their schools that can transform a generation. Our bus tour is a piece of that larger vision we are working toward every day!”

The publicity material failed to note that Bridgeport’s City Librarian is also a Director of Excel Bridgeport or where the money for the effort was coming from.  Under Connecticut law, if the bus tour included any discussions about persuading the state, then Excel Bridgeport could have violated the law by not properly reporting those expenses.  In addition, if lobbying did take place, it raises significant ethical and legal issues if the City Librarian, the City Library or any public resources were used during the “bus tour.”

Since the Office of State Ethics cannot comment on ongoing investigations, it is not clear if Excel Bridgeport is or is not under investigation for lobbying violations leading up to the State Department of Education’s illegal takeover, whether they engaged in illegal lobbying during the recent legislative session or whether Excel Bridgeport Inc., its board of directors or its staff continue to violate the spirit and the letter of Connecticut law.

And violations do not come cheap.  Failing to follow Connecticut’s lobbying law can result in fines of up to $10,000 per violation.

And perhaps the biggest question of all remains the mystery.

Why do these people appear to believe that they are above the law?