The lawsuit between Ansonia’s Board of Education and Mayor David Cassetti’s administration over school funding is scheduled to go to trial — sometime in 2019.
In the meantime, the judge overseeing the case told lawyers representing both sides Tuesday to see what they can do to resolve their differences before then.
“Hopefully this matter will be resolved one way or another well before October 2019,” Judge Barry Stevens said in Superior Court in Derby.
Last month the school board filed a lawsuit against the city because the Board of Aldermen cut the school district’s budget by $600,000 in January.
Mayor David Cassetti’s administration said the cut was reasonable because the school board received about $1.8 million in unanticipated grants from the state, including money for low-performing “alliance districts.”
The $600,000, according to the Cassetti administration, was given because the schools expected alliance district funding to be sacrificed in last year’s state budget mess. A new state law — created in response to the state budget mess — allowed towns and cities to make revisions to spending plans to account for unanticipated revenue.
But the school board, in its lawsuit, said the city didn’t follow that law — and that another law governing alliance districts prohibits cities from using the money to offset the city’s contribution to education funding.
The school board has received two letters from the state Department of Education supporting their position.
The two sides were scheduled to meet in court Tuesday for a “show cause” hearing, in which the school district was asking a judge to force the city to open its checkbook to cover expenses until the end of the school year.
Without the money, the school board argued in a legal filing, it “will have little choice but to close (schools) prior to the end of the school year.”
However, Tuesday’s hearing was averted after the school board and the Board of Aldermen worked out a deal Monday night.
The city agreed to put up to $500,000 in a “settlement fund” to help the school district close out the fiscal year, which ends June 31.
Judge Theodore Tyma approved the settlement Tuesday.
The settlement agreement is embedded at the bottom of this story.
While the Aldermen agreed to release $500,000 — and were able to review school district financial paperwork — the larger legal question in the lawsuit about whether the Aldermen were allowed to take back the money remains.
And, according to statements released by Mayor Cassetti and Schools Superintendent Carol Merlone, there’s no resolution in sight.
“I am pleased to report that my administration has answered the wild threats and intimidation tactics of school officials by stepping up as the adult in the room,” Cassetti’s statement said.
The mayor accused Merlone of using students and teachers “as pawns . . . to get her way no matter the cost.”
Merlone said the city prolonged the dispute for no reason.
“The irony of this is that it could have been avoided if the city accepted the offer when we met on April 23,” Merlone said. “During this meeting, I requested that the city restore $500,000 to the district, leaving the city with $100,000.”
“That offer was rejected,” Merlone said. “After temporary litigation and hundreds of pages of budget documentation, it is clear that the city agrees with our year-end budget projection.”
Cassetti vowed to keep fighting for Ansonia’s future.
Merlone vowed to always represent the students’ interests.
After Judge Tyma approved the $500,000 settlement, lawyers representing the city and school district met with Judge Stevens for about 15 minutes to hash out a rough schedule for the case going forward.
The judge asked both sides to have any pretrial motions filed by Oct. 4, 2019, after which a trial date will be set.
He expressed hope that the city and school board could resolve their differences before then.
Frederick Dorsey, the school board’s lawyer, said the district’s funding problems will continue because the Aldermen Monday night approved a roughly $31.2 million budget for the 2018-2019 school year.
That’s the same bottom line the budget had in January, after the Aldermen took away the $600,000.
“The settlement agreement that we had this year required a provision of more money than was approved for next year last night,” Dorsey said. “If we couldn’t operate this year on that amount of money, it’s not that likely we’ll be able to operate next year with that amount of money.”
But Vincent Marino, a lawyer representing the city, said the school district hasn’t shown they would have run out of money before the end of the year.
“We don’t feel that there is a shortfall, still,” Marino said. “We did not believe that was an issue, but we really felt it was not in the best interests of the community to keep this issue open.”
The settlement released Tuesday is below.