ANSONIA — The latest step in the legal drama between City Hall and the Board of Education came Tuesday night with Mayor David Cassetti making a public offer to split the difference in a funding dispute with the school board.
But the school board’s top two members rebuffed the mayor’s offer.
Speaking during the monthly meeting of the Board of Aldermen, the mayor offered to give the Board of Education $300,000 of the $600,000 it is seeking in a lawsuit it filed against the city earlier this year.
The rift between the city and school board developed after the Ansonia Board of Aldermen voted in January to take back $600,000 in education funding after approving a budget the previous spring.
The Aldermen’s move meant that city schools did not receive at least the same amount of money it had the previous year — a violation of Connecticut’s “minimum budget requirement,” according to the state Department of Education.
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, and the state’s budget law passed last year allowed city officials to revise the numbers.
In May, the school board sued.
The mayor’s offer would see $300,000 restored to the Board of Education’s budget for this year (2018-2019), with another $300,000 added next year (2019-2020).
That would restore the board to its original 2017-2018 budget — $31,860,484.
The mayor referenced his background as a boxer in being willing to fight out the legal dispute in court — but invoked Ronald Reagan’s compromises with Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill to say he’d rather settle the dispute.
“We all act impetuous — both sides,” Cassetti said. “I am hoping the Board of Ed will join with me in the spirit of compromise and accept this offer.”
He said he would send the offer to school officials in “the hope of we can resolve our differences in the good of all taxpayers.”
Cassetti said he tried to present the offer to school officials during a meeting he had with them Aug. 27, but the school board’s lawyer, Frederick Dorsey, ended the meeting.
The Valley Indy emailed Dorsey, Board of Education President William Nimons, and Superintendent Carol Merlone late Tuesday seeking comment on the mayor’s offer.
In a reply, Nimons said the school board “is perfectly willing to be reasonable but not willing to aid the City in breaking the law.”
“Minimal adherence with the law is not what the children of Ansonia deserve but it is better than wasting resourses on the City’s attempt to steal from the students,” Nimons said.
Christopher Phipps, the school board’s vice chairman, was at the Aldermen’s meeting Tuesday.
He said he was surprised by the mayor’s offer but didn’t think it will be accepted.
“I can’t speak for the whole board but I wouldn’t be in favor at this point of settling,” he said.
He noted the mayor’s offer comes after the state Board of Education voted last week to begin a formal investigation into the city’s $600,000 cut from the school budget.
That vote followed warnings from state education officials that Ansonia could lose millions in education grants if the city didn’t restore the cut.
“They’re not bluffing. It’s a violation of law,” Phipps said. “Up until now the city kept saying they were right with the law, but all of a sudden now there seems to be a little change.”
The city’s corporation counsel, John Marini, said after Tuesday’s meeting the mayor’s offer would be contingent on the state investigation — initiated by a complaint from Ansonia school officials — being withdrawn.
He estimated each side has spent about $30,000 in legal fees on the lawsuit thus far.
The mayor denied the state’s threats led to his compromise offer.
“That’s not my motivation,” Cassetti said. “Absolutely positively not. I want to be done with this and move forward.”