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Arbitrators: laid off school police officers must be reinstated with back pay

October 4, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — The school board two years ago was wrong to lay off five school police officers, and must pay for that error.

How much — and whether the funds come out of education or City Hall’s operating budget — are the outstanding questions.

A state arbitration panel recently concluded that the five officers — Jeffrey Babey, Jonathan Forestier, Michael Bouchard, Dwayne Harrison and Stephen Vitka — should have been protected by a concessions pact that guaranteed their job security.

As part of that 2016 deal between Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration and the National Association of Government Employees, NAGE union members were guaranteed their jobs until June 30, 2018, in exchange for givebacks.

The state panel ordered the officers be retroactively reinstated to their jobs and, salary-wise, “made whole less any interim earnings including, but not limited to any unemployment or other earnings they may have had between Aug. 12, 2016, and the date they returned to work.”

The Ganim administration declined to comment for this story, citing “multiple matters pending litigation.”

Superintendent of Schools Aresta Johnson and her chief financial officer, Marlene Siegel, said they are waiting for NAGE to submit the amounts of money the officers are owed.

“Who will pay and how much, we do not know,” Johnson said.

Siegel added, “The city created the problem.”

The school board, faced with a flat-funded budget, cut the five positions in June 2016 partly because of cost, partly for philosophic reasons — they were sworn police officers with arrest powers, which bothered some board members — and partly because the officers could be pulled out of the schools by the city for other police duties, among other reasons.

Though the district paid their salaries, the officers answered to the police department, although they were part of a different union than the rest of Bridgeport’s cops.

When the positions were cut, the Ganim administration declined to pick up their $492,000 total salaries, resulting in the five officers’ termination.

That dispute was among several high-profile labor actions, including concessions fights and layoffs, that marked Ganim’s return to City Hall in 2016. First mayor in the 1990s, Ganim was re-elected in November 2015 and, upon taking office that December, complained he had been left a $20 million deficit that forced budget cuts and labor givebacks.

According to Siegel, the state arbitration decision will not result in the board or city keeping the five officers. In fact, she said, all five were laid off a day after they were reinstated, as the NAGE members’ job security had expired at the end of June 2018.

The school district, however, is hardly without security. It has a small army of more than 80 school security guards.

NAGE referred questions for this story to its attorney, Douglas Hall, who did not return a request for comment.

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