In the 2012 general election for president a municipal ballot question appeared that broke records for money spent to influence a city vote: “Shall the City of Bridgeport approve and adopt the Charter changes as recommended by the Charter Revision Commission and approved by the City Council, including education governance reforms.” Translation: Mayor Bill Finch wants the power to appoint school board members. The measure was defeated handily.
Why? During a special meeting on July 5, 2011, a majority of the elected Bridgeport Board of Education members pushed by Finch with the blessing of Governor Dan Malloy surreptitiously threw in the towel, declaring the city was no longer competent to run city schools and required state oversight. By a 6-3 vote the board asked the state Board of Education to dissolve the local elected board in favor of an appointed body. The State Board of Education agreed. New members were appointed by politicians rather than the people. National education reformer Paul Vallas was brought in as school chief.
The state takeover decision came as a major surprise to the electorate. In his first three years as mayor Finch provided little public declaration about the sad state of city schools. In fact, he announced things were just ducky and then one day Finch announced the schools were a disaster requiring public intervention.
Three school board members voted against the state takeover, Maria Pereira, Bobby Simmons and Sauda Baraka. Attorney Norm Pattis filed a lawsuit on behalf of Pereira and Simmons challenging the legality of the state takeover. The Connecticut Supreme Court sided with local-control advocates.
This set the stage for a Charter Revision Commission appointed by Finch to craft a ballot question that if approved would authorize the mayor to appoint all nine members to the school board. The question was approved by the City Council for ballot placement.
The ballot question came under fire for being misleading in its intent. Opponents came down on one single easy message to understand: voting yes to the measures means taking away your right to vote for school board members.
The ballot question was historic for spending purposes in city elections with both sides of the issue investing close to $1 million combined to make their case.
The mayoral coalition received the backing of independent expenditures from StudentsFirst and Excel Bridgeport. The no coalition was backed by the Bridgeport Education Association, Connecticut’s Working Families Party, the Connecticut Citizen Action Group and numerous city political figures.
The mayoral coalition framed its message as a school reform movement while the opposition explained that it was simply a movement to strip voting rights.
Just about every voting precinct featured a show of force from both sides of the issue. Vote Yes signs and Vote No signs greeted voters as they approached the polls.
Ironically many city voters who don’t bother to vote in low-turnout school board elections decided the matter in a higher-turnout general election for president in which Barack Obama won a second term.
For many Finch opponents, his extended intrusion into the school system was the beginning of the end of his mayoralty. After winning a second four-year term in 2011, he’d lose the September 2015 Democratic primary to Joe Ganim, becoming the first mayor in city history lanced in a primary.