A funding dispute between Ansonia school and city officials looks headed to court.
The Board of Education set a Thursday (May 10) deadline for the Board of Aldermen to reverse a January vote to take $600,000 from the school district’s budget — or face a lawsuit.
Instead, the Aldermen voted unanimously without discussion to “proceed with the defense of litigation” after discussing the issue behind closed doors at their monthly meeting Tuesday.
Afterward Mayor David Cassetti said the city will prevail if the school board goes through with a lawsuit.
“Full steam ahead. Let them sue us,” Cassetti said. “We’re in the right and we’re going to win this, I’m very confident of that.”
The city’s corporation counsel, John Marini, said after Tuesday’s meeting that while the city will listen to any overtures made by school officials before Thursday’s deadline, the Aldermen “were justified in doing what they did.”
He said a letter sent by a lawyer at the state education department to the school district saying the Aldermen’s January vote was “unlawful” misinterpreted state law.
Lorie Vaccaro, the president of the Board of Aldermen, said he doesn’t anticipate any further negotiations between the two boards before Thursday.
“I believe Thursday’s going to come and go . . . we’re spinning our wheels at this point,” Vaccaro said. “There’s two sides to every story and we believe in ours.”
The school board has argued the Aldermen’s January vote didn’t follow state law.
But Cassetti’s administration says the money taken away from the schools properly, and that the move was part of an agreement between the city and the school district last year.
They say the $600,000 was a loan the city granted to the school last year when the school district’s state aid was in jeopardy.
The city contends that the school district eventually received more state aid than was anticipated, so the city should get the money back.
School officials said the city was wrong to take money back from the budget in the middle of the school year.
As a result, they say they’ll struggle to finish the year without going into the red or laying off teachers.
“We’ve already spent that money,” William Nimons, the school board president, said at a meeting last month. “It’s gone.”
A May 2 letter from the state Department of Education to Ansonia’s schools superintendent, Carol Merlone, sided with the school board.
The letter, written by Peter Haberlandt, the state education department’s director of legal affairs, points out that state law says that once a municipality’s legislative body sets a school budget, it’s essentially set in stone.
The letter notes that lawmakers in Hartford last year granted “limited authority” for towns to make adjustments to their budgets because of the state’s agonizing budget process.
But those adjustments can only be made in “specific circumstances,” Haberlandt wrote.
One of those circumstances — the town must not be part of the “alliance district” program, which gives extra state aid to underperforming school districts to be used specifically for reform programs.
Ansonia schools, which rely heavily on state and federal aid, are part of the “alliance district” program.
When the state created the program, officials said towns could not decrease school funding and look to alliance funding to make up the difference.
“Therefore, the Board of Aldermen’s action of reducing by $600,000 the amount of funds initially appropriated to the Board of Education was unlawful,” Haberlandt’s letter says. “It is our hope and expectation that this issue can be resolved locally.”
However, the conflict now seems headed for a courtroom.
School officials talked about the case behind closed doors for about an hour May 2 before voting to give the city until the close of business Thursday to restore the $600,000 cut.
If that doesn’t happen, the school board gave school officials the OK “to file legal action against the city to restore the $600,000 reduction.”
In a letter Merlone sent to Cassetti two days later, she said the school board would hold off on a lawsuit if the city gave $500,000 back.
A Fox 61 report on the meeting is embedded below, along with the state education department’s letter to Merlone and Merlone’s letter to Cassetti.