Supreme Court Rules in Favor of School District in Building Project Referendum Challenge: Substance Trumps Form

3D_png_Judges_GavelSchool districts often find themselves in the precarious position of having to rely upon the outcome of a referendum for passage of a budget or building project while simultaneously having no control over the conduct of the referendum. In a saga that hopefully is coming to an end, a Connecticut regional school district may finally be able to put shovels in the ground and start a building project rather than expend further time and money planning litigation strategy. In a decision officially released on October 20, 2015,, the Connecticut Supreme Court elevated substance over form and declined to overturn the results of a hotly contested school building project referendum. For purposes of full disclosure, the author -- with my colleague, Zachary Schurin -- represented the school district at all phases of this litigation, including the Supreme Court proceedings.

In 2013, a referendum was conducted to determine whether the voters would approve a $63.8 million high school building renovation project for a regional school district. The project passed, albeit with a slim majority. Certain townspersons asserted that the failure of the town clerks for the member towns in the regional school district to publish “legal notice” (i.e., a “warning”) in the newspaper concerning the referendum in itself rendered the results null and void. “Legal notices” are those notices contained in the back of the newspaper, usually next to the “want ads.” This assertion set off a chain of litigious events that culminated with the Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the school board.

First, the towns brought an action in the Litchfield Superior Court to determine the validity of the referendum vote. In responding to the towns’ challenge, the regional school district asserted that: 1) there was substantial publicity for the referendum, including “front page” news stories and mailings to every residence within the school district); 2) the information required in a “legal notice” was provided via a press release and notice from a town registrar of voters; and 3) no harm had been established from the lack of newspaper “legal notice” as there was no evidence that it affected the outcome of the vote. The Litchfield Superior Court agreed with the school district and upheld the validity and results of the referendum.

Second, five taxpayers/electors brought a separate lawsuit in the Waterbury Superior Court against both the regional school district and the towns, along with several district and town officials. The Waterbury Superior Court also entered judgment for the school district, essentially making the same findings and conclusions as the Litchfield court regarding the publicity given to the vote and the lack of any showing of any harm caused by the absence of newspaper “legal notice.”

Undeterred, the taxpayers/electors appealed their loss in the Waterbury Superior Court, and the Supreme Court, by way of 4-3 decision, affirmed the trial court ruling. Arras v. Regional School District #14, 319 Conn. 245 (October 20, 2015). The Court agreed with the school district and applied to this case Connecticut case law regarding challenges to municipal elections, which cautions against overturning election results other than in those exceptional cases in which there has been a showing of a substantial violation that also puts the election results in serious doubt. The majority of the Supreme Court held that any procedural defect with regard to the notice should not serve to invalidate the referendum results in light of the ample publicity provided and the lack of any showing of harm. Indeed, over the course of the referendum litigation, those seeking to invalidate the referendum failed to offer even a scintilla of evidence that a single voter was prevented from voting due to the lack of a published “warning.”

Is there a teachable moment here?

It is axiomatic that strict compliance with the law is always the preferred course of action. In fact, even if – as the Supreme Court decided -- there need not be strict compliance with the “legal notice” requirements for a referendum or election, there may still be a need for such compliance with such “legal notice” requirements for a town meeting or regional school district meeting. It is also important that school districts cooperate with town officials in the conduct of the referendum. Sometimes, however, school districts are reliant upon the actions of others, and procedural errors can occur in the rush of time. Nonetheless, school districts should take some comfort in knowing that not every procedural miscue, including those committed by non-school-district, or municipal, officials will lead to all of their hard work being tossed away. In short, the will of the majority of voters should not suffer due to any procedural or technical defect in an election.

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Alerts, commentary, and insights from the attorneys of Pullman & Comley’s School Law practice on federal and Connecticut law as it pertains to educational institutions, whether those institutions be public school districts, private K-12 schools, or post-secondary colleges and universities.

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