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Morris seeks to continue lawsuit against Norwalk, BoE

Then-State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140), in January 2018. (File photo)

Updated, 1:19 p.m.: PDF added.

NORWALK, Conn. — A Stamford Superior Court judge has been asked to rule on whether the facts warrant a trial in the lawsuit filed by Bruce Morris against the City of Norwalk, Norwalk Public Schools and the Norwalk Board of Education.

Morris, former State Representative, alleges discrimination and retaliation in the elimination of his job as Schools Climate Coordinator for Norwalk Public Schools.

Defendants in the suit say Morris’ job was cut strictly for budgetary reasons, that it was Superintendent Steven Adamowski’s decision, and that he did not consider the opinion of Board of Education members in doing so. 

Morris’s attorney Daniel Angelone argues that evidence shows racist and discriminatory attitudes towards Morris and other black Norwalkers.  Angelone cited emails in which then-BoE Chairman Mike Lyons called Morris a “snake” who needs to be eliminated, after building a strong case so as to “avoid a race war.” In another, Lyons refers to the “usual caterwauling from the ‘minority community.’”

The defendants on April 15 moved for summary judgment, in which the judge would issue a decision without a trial. A slew of documents filed Friday on Morris’s behalf seek to persuade the judge that a jury trial is warranted.

 

 

Position reduced, reclassified, then eliminated

Morris was hired in 1998 to be Human Relations Director, a role he kept until September/October 2015, when he was reclassified as a School Climate Coordinator. In June 2016, the position was eliminated.

He was elected to the General Assembly in 2006. Evidence in the lawsuit includes commentary from Board of Education members expressing concern about the time he spent being a legislator versus the time he spent on his NPS job.

Morris’ hours had been cut from 37.5 hours to 30 in the 2012-13 budget, when the Board was hit by a $4 million deficit in its insurance fund. Morris was reprimanded in November 2015; he filed a grievance. The Board of Education Negotiations and Personnel Committee allowed the letter to stand, saying it was not subject to the grievance process.

Morris filed a Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) complaint in May 2016, after meeting with Adamowski to discuss his possible retirement. Morris subsequently refused a retirement package because Adamowski demanded that he drop the complaint. CHRO dropped its jurisdiction on the complaint in March 2017 and the lawsuit was filed in July 2017, alleging invasion of privacy, discrimination and retaliation.

On May 15, the Court struck the invasion of privacy counts and Morris’ prayer for relief.

Morris claimed his privacy had been invaded by the release of settlement discussion details to NancyOnNorwalk, through a Freedom of Information request. The Court agreed that settlement details are typically confidential but said reasonable people would not typically find their release highly offensive, given that Morris is a public employee.

The prayer for relief was struck because Connecticut law doesn’t allow punitive damages in an employment discrimination case.

On Sept. 21, Morris filed an amended complaint accusing the Board of discriminating against him based on his race and role as a legislator, and of retaliating against him because of his previous opposition to discrimination. His new prayer asks for compensatory damages and to make him whole.

 

 

Motion for summary judgement

The defendants’ April 15 motion, by attorney Dennis Duaro, argues that Morris is asking the court to act as a super-personnel department by second-guessing the Board of Ed’s decisions, contrary to legal standards.

The reprimand had nothing to do with the elimination of Morris’ position, according to the motion. Rather, it was about the budget: two other Central Office positions were eliminated as were 24 school-level jobs.

The Schools Climate Coordinator position was cut because it was newly-created, part-time and had limited responsibilities that were easily absorbed by others, the defendants argue.  Also eliminated was the science instructional specialist and the custodian supervisor. Board of Education members’ involvement was limited to approving the budget, and the non-Caucasian members did not attempt to amend the budget to fund Morris’ position, Duaro stated in a filing.

The defendants allege that Morris’ CHRO complaint was “a thinly veiled first step” to set up a retaliation claim if his position was cut, given that he had already met with Adamowski to discuss retirement.

 

Morris’ argument

Morris’ affidavit states that from the day he was hired in November 1998 to November 2015, he was never disciplined by Norwalk Public Schools. Exhibits include a 2002 letter from then-Superintendent of Schools Sal Corda commending him for a “fine job” in moderating a forum, and one from 2009, saying he performs his role “extremely well.” A 2012 performance evaluation rates him as satisfactory in two categories and excellent or commendable in five others.

Part of the discriminatory action against him was to set him up for failure; as time passed he became the only department head with no clerical staff, he states. He became School Climate Coordinator in August 2016 but was not provided with a job description until December. Costanzo said in November that he’d be giving him a job evaluation.

When Morris was originally hired, the job description called for a Bachelor’s degree or community experience. The School Climate Coordinator job description calls for a Bachelor’s degree, so that Morris “would not qualify for the position,” the affidavit states.

Former Superintendent Manny Rivera and interim Superintendent Jim Connelly did not express any interest in firing Morris, according to Angelone.

 

 

Lyons email: ‘Bye bye Brucie’

Rivera and Connelly complained about Morris during executive sessions, alleging a poor attendance record, Lyons and Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis testified.

Angelone asked Barbis if it was fair to say that Morris was being cut partly because he was viewed as a snake and a political opportunist.

“I don’t know,” Barbis replied.

Mayor Harry Rilling testified that, before Adamowski was hired in 2015, he’d heard a rumor that there was a list of minority administrators who had been targeted, but never seen the rumored list.

Rilling said he didn’t support removing Morris. “I’ve known Mr. Morris for a while. I haven’t heard of any significant problems, and I couldn’t understand the rationale behind” firing him.

In June 2015, the Board of Education needed to cut its budget. Then-Chief Financial Officer Rich Rudl came up with a “whole smorgasbord of potential cuts” that would add up to the $75,000 in question, with cutting Morris at the top of the list, Lyons wrote in an email.

Connelly rejected cutting Morris, Lyons wrote. “I ran that possibility past Adamowski and he asked that we not do that.  He fully understands what a snake Morris is, but having been appointed a racial vote, he doesn’t want a race war starting up over Morris just as he’s taking office.”

Adamowski was appointed in a 5 to 4 vote, with the Caucasian members voting in favor and the black or Hispanic members voting no.

Adamowski would tell Morris that whatever the arrangement had been, he would have to work 32 hours in the building, and check in digitally, Lyons wrote.

“That change will severely curtail Morris’ political activities, and he’ll have to decide if he wants the $80K and is finally willing to earn it or if he’s willing to take a big pay cut so he can be ‘big man on campus’ in Hartford,” Lyons wrote. “But better to leave this to Adamowski, who can build a solid record on Bruce than for us to lay him off and have protests from now to election day.”

So what’s a race war? Lyons testified:

“Race war to me is when people make a big cause celebre out of something and turn a dispute that may not, in fact, have anything to do with people’s skin color into something based on skin color. And this become – and you rally people and you get them to come to city hall with signs and all that kind of stuff, which I have been through a few times. And Adamowski didn’t want that as he was starting up.”

Why is Bruce Morris a snake? Lyons testified:

“I felt that Mr. Morris was a person who had used his political connections to get himself three government payrolls for his family. He’s working for the city, his wife is working for the city, and he’s working for the state. And he had, as far as I could tell or anybody could tell, no significant achievements that I could see.  That, you know, he hadn’t brought us any big ECS funding increases or anything in all the years he was in the legislature. He hadn’t accomplished anything that I could see of any significant value for the school system. We got cited by the state for failures with SPED and failures with disciplining of minority students. And, you know, this is a guy who played politics to get himself multiple payrolls. And all power to him; but, you know, not my ideal of what you should be doing in politics.”

 

Also, “anybody who draws a paycheck and doesn’t show up for work doesn’t do anything for their job earns that appellation,” Lyons said.  He cited Rivera, Rudl and former BoE members Jack Chiaramonte and Sue Haynie as the source of that characterization of Morris’ job performance.

On Jan. 15, 2016, after Adamowski released a new budget recommendation, Lyons sent an email to Board members, regarding position changes. “Here it is,” he wrote. “Bye Bye Brucie! Morris and his assistant’s positions are being cut from this budget.”

Angelone’s argument includes this excerpt from a 2012 Lyons email included in exhibits:

“The Curriculum meeting went very well, and Core Knowledge (CK) was well-received… Bruce Morris started in with how inadequate the CK curriculum was because it didn’t recognize minorities…Then Morris said that ‘things like this wont work with African- Americans because of their ‘unique circumstances’’ and that the schools need to focus on ‘building pride in their culture as the way to get black kids to learn.’…. (which theory, at base, is something southern crackers would agree with (‘everyone but blacks can learn, ’cause blacks are inferior’)!).”

Lyons 2012 email re CK curriculum.aspx

 

Attorney: Lyons an ‘equal opportunity criticizer’

“{T}here is nothing racial about Mr. Lyons’ comments. Indeed, Mr. Lyons was an equal opportunity criticizer,” Duaro wrote. “In particular, he criticized Caucasian administrators who he felt were obstructing progress or attempting to do so. For instance, in a private email communication, Mr. Lyons referred plaintiff as part of the ‘Four Horsemen [of the Apocalypse.]’ In that same email, Mr. Lyons praises as a positive development the addition of Dr. Michael Conner as the District’s Chief Academic Officer.”

“Despite qualified black applicants, the Board has consistently hired Caucasian superintendents,” Angelone states.

“Since 2011, the BOE has hired eighteen (18) non-Caucasian administrators, including seven (7) Black principals, seven (7) Black assistant principals/CSIDs, a Hispanic Chief Talent Officer, a Hispanic School Preparedness Coordinator, the first ever Hispanic Superintendent, and a Hispanic Assistant Principal,” Duaro wrote.

“There is not a mote of evidence that Dr. Adamowski identified plaintiff’s position for elimination because of his race or color,” Duaro wrote.

The reference to “southern crackers” shows Lyons belittling Morris for seeking what is best for the black community, Angelone wrote.  He noted that the defendants in their emails never refer to the Human Relations Director position or to the Schools Climate Coordinator position, but to Morris himself.

Lyons wanted Morris gone not because of budgetary issues, but because Morris “did not use his power as a legislator to steer funding to the City of Norwalk’s Board of Education,” Angelone wrote.

“By reviewing the emails between all of the decision makers and their conduct, a reasonable jury could conclude that Defendants are merely using the excuse of a budget issue as a smoke screen for the truth of improper discrimination,” Angelone wrote. “Further, the jury can come to a very real conclusion that the focus of the Defendants was not to eliminate the Director of Human Relations Position, or the School Climate Coordinator position, but eliminate the Plaintiff.”

A trial had been scheduled for June, but it’s now tentatively scheduled for October.

 

Morris v BoE 18-0921 amended complaint

Morris v BoE 19-0415 memo o law

Morris v BoE 19-0415 exhibit list I

Morris v BoE 19-0415 exhibit list II

Morris v BoE 19-0426 opposition to summary judgement

Morris v BoE 19-0426 Lyons Adamowski deposition

Morris v BoE 19-0426 depositions Costanzo Rilling Barbis Morris

 

12 comments

Mitch Adis April 30, 2019 at 7:07 am

We all can agree that Moriss did virtually zero to earn a dollar. Doesn’t matter what position you look at either. He should be ashamed of himself. Instead he files a lawsuit. Is he related to the Mosby’s?

Alice Allen April 30, 2019 at 7:22 am

What is a “School Climate Control Coordinator”. This is where my tax dollars is going? Many of our children aren’t learning and we’re paying for a Climate Coordinator? RIDICULOUS!

Piberman April 30, 2019 at 9:53 am

How are Mayor Rilling’s “views” relevant here ? Did he have “supervisory authority” over Mr. Morris ?
Or is it another example of “Norwalk Professionalism” where Democrats support other Democrats ?
The larger question is why our highly taxed One Party commuter City seems to incur far more litigation than other similar communities. Litigation surely doesn’t enlightened our City’s well known reputation.

Steve Mann April 30, 2019 at 12:07 pm

“………….before Adamowski was hired in 2015, he’d heard a rumor that there was a list of minority administrators who had been targeted, but never seen the rumored list.”

Folks wonder how “fake news” gets started. Laying the bait comes first.

Hugh Sling April 30, 2019 at 12:23 pm

School Climate Control Coordinator?! This lengthy atricle. while enlightning, doesn’t say what that elminated position entrailed. Maybe a useless job just got zeroed out.

Bob Welsh April 30, 2019 at 12:46 pm

@Hugh

I’m unaware of job description for the former NPS position, but here’s a district in Ohio recruiting for the same title on linkedin:

“The Ohio Department of Education is seeking two motivated individual(s) to plan and develop programming and resources associated with behavioral health, student wellness, social-emotional learning, and multi-tiered systems of support for Ohio schools. Candidates should demonstrate competence and experience with providing professional development training, organizational consultation, coaching, teaching and team-based decision making. Background knowledge of PBIS, social-emotional learning, behavioral interventions, and educational systemic improvement processes is highly desirable.

Major Responsibilities And Duties
Work as part of an interdisciplinary team to expand programs and systems that promote student behavioral wellness and strategies to meet the needs of the whole child:
Provides professional development opportunities to school personnel on PBIS, social-emotional learning and other related topics;
Provides planning and development assistance in developing organized and meaningful PBIS coaching systems and practices at the state, regional and local levels:
Facilitates and conducts effective project planning (e.g. evaluations, budget, finance, reports, sourcing, request for proposal);
Researches and reviews funding options;
Researches policies and regulations to ensure general procedural compliance;
Assist in the development of systems and resources to facilitate behavior health multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), including components of: a) data-based decision making, b) mental health/behavioral health community service integration, and c) behavioral wellness strategies;
Assists ESCs, SSTs, and local districts with the acquisition and utilization of PBIS data systems, (e.g. PBISApps);
Assists the Office of Integrated Student Supports and the Ohio PBIS Network in developing trainings, resources, on-line resources, and family friendly information associated with PBIS:
Coordinates project teams;
Researches and develops project guidance to ensure continuous improvement and compliance;
Plans, develops and implements internal and external policies and procedures as it pertains to projects in collaboration with Director.

Performs other duties as assigned… ”

https://www.linkedin.com/jobs/view/school-climate-coordinator-at-state-of-ohio-1113042729/

Hugh Sling April 30, 2019 at 6:41 pm

These job descriptions, I thought climate means temprature and humidity and such like somebody goes around setting the thermostat, but the Ohio job seems to be about mental and or emotional climate. An the Norwalk job likewise only in less detail.

piberman April 30, 2019 at 10:15 pm

How does discussing job performance of individual City employees in the press enhance our City personnel decision making. Do City employees actually “enjoy” the publicity ? Why do we pay fancy 6 figure salaries to our Personnel Directors ? Aren’t they the “professionals” to deal with these issues.

John ONeill May 1, 2019 at 8:04 am

I give Bruce Morris 100% credit for manipulating the system and winning. He should be hired by the board to teach a class on persistence (without working to hard) and persuasion.

Jason May 3, 2019 at 11:57 am

The city’s law department deserves an award for putting up with all of these shenanigans. Or at least a cake and a spa day.

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