Ansonia Aldermen voted unanimously Monday to settle part of a legal dispute with the Board of Education for $500,000.
The school board had claimed that it would be unable to finish the month without going into the red because the city had cut its budget by $600,000 in January.
The Board of Education had asked a judge to order the city to cough up the $600,000 immediately because the district said they didn’t have enough money to pay end-of-the-year bills.
A “show cause” hearing on that specific request was scheduled Tuesday at Superior Court in Derby.
This Is Not Over
However, if the judge approves the settlement voted on Monday, the hearing won’t happen — but the larger lawsuit filed against the city by the school board will proceed.
“This resolves tomorrow,” Vincent Marino, a lawyer representing the city, said. “It does not resolve the entire case.”
Reminder: This Is The Confusing Bigger Picture
How we’d get here, you ask?
Well, Ansonia schools rely heavily on state and federal aid.
Last year Connecticut’s budget process was a disaster.
School officials were advised the district would not be receiving “alliance district” grants — money targeted toward the state’s lowest-performing schools that is to be used for state-approved reform programs.
So the Aldermen said they agreed to give the school district an extra $600,000 to cover the loss of state aid.
But the money from the state came through after all, though only after Ansonia approved a budget. So, in January, the Aldermen voted to take $600,000 back.
The school district said the city’s action wasn’t legal, because the “alliance district” money can’t be used to offset the city’s contribution to education funding. They have two letters from the state department of education and the state law regarding alliance districts backing the claim.
But the Cassetti administration points to a state law from last year that allowed cities to revise their budget specifically because of last year’s state budget problems.
So the school district has turned to the courts to sort it out.
OK, Back To Monday’s Specific Settlement
The $500,000 settlement approved Monday is to make sure the school district can pay its bills calls until the end of the month.
It calls for the city to set up a “settlement fund” of up to $500,000 to pay out any expenses the school board would have not been able to cover for the rest of the month.
As the school board closes out its books for the year, it will present specific expenses to the city for approval to spend from the fund, Marino said.
Under the agreement announced by Aldermen, the money can only be spent on payroll, student transportation, insurance, special education tuition, and $30,000 in textbooks.
Article continues after video of the Aldermen’s vote.
Officials could not say where specifically in the city’s budget that money will be coming from.
“We have to find it somewhere,” Lorie Vaccaro, the president of the Board of Aldermen, said after the vote.
Asked why compromise didn’t come sooner, Vaccaro said the settlement fund won’t be counted toward the school district’s budget — and the city won’t therefore be obligated to include the money in future budgets.
Vaccaro talks about the settlement in the video below.
About 90 minutes prior to the Aldermen vote, members of the Ansonia school board also voted to approve the agreement.
The terms of the deal were hammered out by the school board’s lawyers and lawyers representing the city during a court mediation session earlier in the day.
Teacher Layoffs Coming?
Immediately after the vote, school board President William Nimons said he could not reveal the details of the agreement until it is reviewed by a Superior Court judge. That review could happen in Derby court Tuesday.
Nimons indicated money problems are still hindering the school district.
The district will still have to layoff staffers at some point next year, he said.
“We will have layoffs. We don’t know how many yet,” Nimons said.
The school board leader’s complete comments can be viewed in the video at the top of the story.
Nimons said The Valley Indy favors Mayor David Cassetti, which may explain his behavior in the video after a Valley Indy reporter asks a question.
The “good news” for the school district Monday, according to Nimons:
“Kids are all going to graduate, schools are going to be open and there will be no layoffs this year. I can’t say the same for next year,” he said.
The school board’s lawyer pointed out the school district will have enough money to complete the school year.
Nimons continued to complain about The Valley Indy Monday as a reporter tried to confirm facts with the school board’s lawyer. The Valley Indy asked Nimons to stop and advised that he speak to his lawyer about libel and slander law.
Nimons then told The Valley Indy to leave, but a reporter refused.
The audio from the exchange is below. It happens 13 seconds in.
Nimons emailed an apology a short time later.
Mathew Hough, president of the teachers union, said he would meet with Merlone Wednesday to discuss potential cuts.
“We have to tell teachers their placement for next year on Thursday,” Hough said. “This lawsuit obviously is not going to be settled (by then). I have a feeling there will be layoffs. I don’t know any other solution at this point.”
A school board lawyer could not offer additional details as of 9 p.m. because he was waiting to learn how the Aldermen voted on the agreement.
Monday’s settlement votes came after hours of discussions by lawyers representing the city and school board at Superior Court in Derby mediated by Judge Theodore Tyma.
But it does not resolve the larger legal dispute between the city and school district — or what has become an annual budget fight over whether the city’s public schools are funded adequately.
ALSO, THERE WERE TWO ALDERMEN BUDGET VOTES
The Aldermen also voted to approve this year’s altered budget, along with a budget for next year — but not before hearing a wave of criticism from residents, more than a dozen of whom spoke against the changes to the school budget.
Kathie Gabrielson, the school district’s Director of Special Services, said the $600,000 cut could also jeopardize other federal grants that come to the school district.
Javier Arguello said the GDP per capita and spending per pupil have decreased in Ansonia since Cassetti took office — and have increased in surrounding towns.
“You’re painting an erroneous picture of what you’re doing,” he said.
Tarek Raslan, the Democratic candidate for mayor in 2017, said the city was depleting its financial reserves while pointing out that tax bills for some residents will be going up this year due to state-mandated revaluation, even though the mill rate will remain flat.
“This is like a recipe for the worst possible budget you could put forward,” he said.
After the hearings, the Aldermen voted to approve both budgets.
The vote for the 2017-2018 budget was 10-3, with the First Ward’s Phil Tripp, the Fourth Ward’s Richard Kaslaitis, and the Sixth Ward’s Kevin O’Brien voting no. Dan King, who is also a member of the Board of Apportionment and Taxation, abstained. King has previously endorsed the changes.
The vote for the 2018-2019 budget was 9-5, with Tripp, Kaslaitis, and O’Brien joined in opposition by the Sixth Ward’s Joshua Shuart and Martin Dempsey, from the Fourth Ward.
Dempsey and Shuart said they would have liked more time to review the document, which they only got a copy of at the beginning of Monday’s meeting.
Tripp said after the vote that most members on the Board of Aldermen do what Cassetti tells them to.
“The mayor has nine Aldermen who will vote with him no matter what. So everything is going as expected, unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned,” Tripp said. “The mayor’s office is directing funds to his priorities. It is always about the mayor’s priorities.”