The landmark trial of CCJEF officially concluded on Friday, June 6, 2016. The Defendants called their final witness, Michelle Dixon, Education Consultant at the State Office of School Construction Grants & Review. Ms. Dixon is responsible for evaluating and processing school construction grant applications from municipalities and regional school districts. Ms. Dixon is also responsible for issuing grant commitments and processing reimbursement payment requests.
Ms. Dixon explained that she creates a School Construction Priority List, which includes projects such as roof repairs or building renovations. Each project is assigned a rate for reimbursement which ranges from 20% to 80% based on multiple factors, including the wealth of the municipality. This Priority List is then reviewed and approved by the legislative branch. Interestingly, the legislative branch is able to override the rates assigned to each district or municipality and change the rates of reimbursement assigned to a specific district. Ms. Dixon testified that, in fact, the legislature changes the rates often, and for as long as she has been in charge of this aspect of grant approval process, at least every Priority List has had a change in rate.
On cross-examination Ms. Dixon testified that even before a project reaches her office, it must first be approved by the municipality or the district through a local referendum. Therefore poor municipalities and districts may be disproportionately impacted in the grant approval process due to their inability to approve school construction projects at the local level, as their education budget is usually very limited. Consequently, poor school districts’ students are not being provided with equal educational opportunities as are students of wealthier districts because the State is not making the same financial investment in their schools.
As part of closing business, the Defendants challenged the Plaintiffs’ claim of organizational (a.k.a. associational) standing, arguing that CCJEF is made up of a variety of different organizations including Boards of Education, teacher unions, and other associated groups. The Defendants asserted that the numerous conflicts between these organizations destroy the Plaintiffs’ organizational standing. Judge Moukawsher researched this issue during the Court’s lunch recess, and returned to state that this simply is not an accurate statement of the law in Connecticut with regard to organizational standing. An organization has associational standing if “(a) [the organization’s] members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right; (b) the interests it seeks to protect are germane to the organization’s purpose; and (c) neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members in the lawsuit.” Hunt v. Wash. State Apple Adver. Comm’n, 432 U.S. 333, 343 (1977). Judge Moukawsher noted that he could find only one case, Fairfield County Medical Ass’n v. United Healthcare of New England, Inc., 557 Fed.Appx. 53 (2014), which addresses conflicts as a possible issue for associational standing—but only in the context of the second “germaneness” prong of the three-part test, not as a prong in and of itself.
Nonetheless, the Judge reserved ruling on the Defendants’ objection, to allow them to argue for the addition of a fourth “conflicts” prong at oral arguments, which the Court has scheduled for August 8, 2016 at 10 a.m. (with August 9th as an additional date if necessary). Regardless of the Court’s ruling, the case will undoubtedly be appealed until it reaches the Connecticut Supreme Court. The trial may be concluded, but the case is far from over.