Ansonia Aldermen and school officials clearly disagree about a $600,000 cut made by the Aldermen to the school district’s budget in January.
But leaders from both sides hoped a lawsuit over the issue could be averted before a Tuesday (May 15) deadline set by the school board’s lawyer.
The dispute was discussed in Ansonia City Hall Monday, where more than 60 people attended a public meeting between Aldermen and school officials.
Mayor David Cassetti, who last week dared the school board to sue the city, was not in attendance.
Despite occasional flashpoints during the two-hour meeting, Board of Alderman President Lorie Vaccaro and Board of Education Finance Committee Chairman Christopher Phipps said afterward they would try to keep the conflict from ending up in a courtroom.
“I hope it will be resolved without a lawsuit,” Vaccaro said.
“We don’t want to go to a lawsuit,” Phipps said. “Nobody wins . . . I don’t see based on tonight’s talk that it will go to a lawsuit tomorrow.”
While a deal remains to be reached, their remarks were a marked contrast from weeks of confrontational posturing between the school district and City Hall.
School officials view the Aldermen’s January vote to take $600,000 from their budget as illegal, and have repeatedly said that without the money they’ll finish the school year in the red without more funds.
City officials say the cut was OK because the school board received more state aid than anticipated when the 2017-2018 budget was first set.
During Monday’s meeting school and city officials talked back and forth about how aid money from the state is accounted for various programs, and what it means for the school district’s bottom line.
The issue is especially important in Ansonia, which is a distressed municipality where more than half of the $31,860,484 of the school district’s 2017-2018 budget comes from state and federal aid.
The accounting for all of that money causes occasional confusion between city and school officials.
Example — the school district receives money as an “Alliance District,” which gives extra state aid to underperforming school districts to be used specifically for reform programs.
During last year’s confusion over the state budget, Ansonia officials were initially told to assume the Alliance District money would be going away.
So money for certain programs that had been paid for from the grant were built into the school district’s regular operating budget — only for the Alliance District money to come through months later.
By that time, the alliance money had to be shifted to other areas according to the program’s complicated guidelines.
Rich Bshara, the city’s comptroller, said the state’s efforts to give more money to Ansonia resulted in an accounting headache and a fiscal crunch.
“All of these restricted funds strangled the city,” Bshara said.
In addition to taking $600,000 from the school board, the Aldermen also voted to take nearly $1 million from the city’s fund balance in their January vote.
By the end of the fiscal year he said the city’s rainy day fund will be down to about $4 million — which is toward the low end of where credit rating agencies would like it to be.
“It wasn’t the Board of Ed’s fault, it’s not the city’s fault,” Bshara said. “We really need to figure out a way to make this work for all of us.”
A possible source of compromise to emerge during Monday’s meeting — changing the way a $750,000 surplus food service fund on the school board’s books is accounted for.
School officials seemed hesitant to commit to any specific course of action without consulting their lawyer first.
They said that their lawyer told them federal law prohibited the money from being used to offset educational expenses.
But city officials say only a portion of the money is restricted.
“They should be able to dip into that and give up some money for the students,” Vaccaro said.
While not committing to any specifics, Phipps said he hoped for a compromise with the city.
“Let’s continue to talk,” he said. “We could work it out.”
The dispute between city and school officials in Ansonia could have an impact beyond Ansonia. The city is about to start studying whether the school district should merge or regionalize in some form with Derby.
Committees have been formed and, on Monday, the Valley’s state delegation issued a press release saying a grant had been secured to pay for the study.
But in a Tweet, Jim Gildea, chairman of the Derby Board of Education, said his community has to tread cautiously given the lawsuit threats being tossed around in Ansonia.
“I speak for many parents and citizens when I say it is concerning to be entering into a regionalization study when such a toxic environment exists. True governing requires civility and compromise,” Gildea wrote May 12.