THOMAS ARRAS et al. v. REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT #14 et al., SC 19442
Judicial District of Waterbury
Municipalities; Elections; Education; Whether Failure to Comply with Statutory Notice Requirement Rendered School Building Referendum Invalid. Regional School District #14 (Region 14) is a kindergarten through grade twelve school district created to educate the children of the towns of Bethlehem and Woodbury. Among the schools operated by Region 14 is Nonnewaug High School. In May of 2013, Region 14’s board of education voted in favor of a resolution appropriating $63.8 million for renovations and additions to the high school and authorizing the issuance of bonds and notes to finance the appropriation. The school board also voted that the matter be placed on the referendum ballot in both towns. On June 18, 2013, voters approved the referendum by a margin of four votes. The plaintiffs, who are residents and taxpayers of the two towns, brought this action seeking a declaration that the referendum is null and void because legal notice of the referendum was not published in a newspaper having general circulation in the towns as required by General Statutes §§ 10-47c and 9-226. They also sought a permanent injunction barring any funding or implementation of the school project. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment, and the trial court, Shapiro, J., granted the defendants’ motion. In rendering judgment for the defendants, Judge Shapiro deemed persuasive Judge Pickard’s reasoning in his unchallenged decision in another action brought by the towns of Bethlehem and Woodbury to test the validity of the same referendum. In that case, Judge Pickard declared the referendum valid, ruling that, standing alone, a failure strictly to comply with statutory notice requirements does not invalidate the results of a referendum and that one challenging a referendum must establish that substantial statutory violations resulted in actual prejudice affecting the outcome of the vote. Judge Pickard found no evidence that the failure to comply with the statutory notice requirements here was substantial or caused the results of the referendum to be in doubt, noting that the referendum had received considerable publicity. He observed that there were several articles about it in the towns’ newspapers, that notice of the referendum was posted on Region 14’s website, that prominent signage concerning the referendum was posted around the towns and that Region 14 had used a “robocalling” system to notify residents of the referendum. Finally, Judge Pickard noted that Region 14 had mailed notice of the referendum to every resident of the towns of Bethlehem and Woodbury. The plaintiffs appeal from Judge Shapiro’s judgment in favor of Region 14. They argue that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Region 14 conceded that it had not complied with the statutory notice requirement and that prejudice should have been presumed from that failing. The plaintiffs also contend that Judge Shapiro wrongly relied on Judge Pickard’s decision in the other lawsuit where the towns failed to receive authorization from their boards of selectmen to bring that action.