DERBY — Five lawyers argued for an hour in Superior Court Tuesday over the Ansonia school board’s funding lawsuit against the city.
The debate centered around a budget law passed by state lawmakers in 2017 — and whether it allowed the city to decrease the school budget after it had been passed.
At the end of the hearing, Judge Barry Stevens didn’t issue a ruling in the case.
The judge could rule in favor of either the city or the school district within the next 120 days, or opt to take the case to a trial tentatively scheduled for next year.
He also has the option to hear more from the lawyers.
The city and school board have been in open conflict since the Board of Aldermen voted to take back $600,000 in education funding in January.
The 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” law, according to the state Department of Education.
Cassetti’s administration said the cut was reasonable because the school board received $1.8 million in unanticipated grants from the state.
In May, the school board sued the city over the $600,000 cut, which school officials said resulted in 17 teacher layoffs, increased class sizes, and fewer offerings for students in the city’s public schools.
Tuesday’s hearing concerned motions filed by the school district, city, and teachers union in the case, each requesting “summary judgment.”
Essentially, the filings ask a judge to decide there are no real disputes over the facts in the case, and instead issue a ruling after interpreting the laws concerned. A ruling in favor of the school district and teachers union could mean the city would have to return the $600,000. A ruling in favor of the city could see the lawsuit tossed out of court.
In this case, the arguments revolve around two sections of state law passed during the protracted state budget process in 2017.
Lawyers representing the city have argued the law gave the Aldermen discretion to reduce the school board’s budget because they had to set it before knowing exactly how much state aid would be coming to the city.
That’s especially important in a distressed community like Ansonia, where outside grants add up to roughly half the school budget.
In court Tuesday, Barbara Schellenberg, a lawyer representing the city, said the school district was playing fast and loose with the facts.
She said school officials knew a $600,000 budget increase they received for 2017-2018 could be adjusted afterward if the city ended up receiving more educational grants than anticipated.
But instead of conceding the point, school officials have labeled the city a “bad actor” which chose to gut school funding, Schellenberg said.
“That is simply untrue. It’s complete revisionist history,” she said.
Joseph McQuade, a lawyer representing the Board of Education, pointed to a transcript from when lawmakers debating the state budget were discussing renewing the state’s “Alliance District” program, which gives extra money to the state’s worst performing school districts.
Ansonia eventually received a $1.4 million Alliance District grant when the state budget was finally set — part of the city’s legal rationale for the $600,000 cut.
But the lawmakers’ intent, McQuade said, was to “hold Alliance Districts harmless.”
“It doesn’t make sense that if the legislature’s intent was to hold Alliance Districts harmless through the budget process, that it would allow a city like Ansonia . . . to then take money away from education,” he said.
“The legislature never intended to renew the Alliance program . . . and allow a municipality like Ansonia, which is an Alliance district, to then gut education,” McQuade said.
Schellenberg said the city was put in an impossible position because, when the state budget passed, instead of receiving more “unrestricted” grants it could decide to spend as it pleased, it received more “restricted” money, like the Alliance grant.
“What is the choice? (The city) is either going to have to go and raise taxes or try something else,” Schellenberg said.
The state budget law, she said, allowed the city to decrease the school budget after the fact.
“Clearly the legislature was saying ‘None of those normal constraints that apply with regard to an education budget apply here,’” she said.
The two lawyers also argued over the timeline of the case and how it applied to the state budget law.
Judge Stevens didn’t ask any questions during the hearing, letting lawyers for the school board, city, and teachers unions lay out their arguments.
At the end of the hearing, he said he might ask the lawyers back to discuss the case more after considering their arguments and the filings in the case.
“Thank you for your presentations,” the judge said.
Meanwhile, as the lawsuit proceeds, the state education department could levy penalties on the city after its calls to return the money fell on deaf ears.
Peter Yazbak, a spokesperson for the state department of education, said Tuesday that an investigation by the department’s staff is complete, but a report in the case is not yet public.
A “preliminary fact finding” has been delivered to Dianna R. Wentzell, the commissioner of the state education department, he said.
She now has 10 business days to review the findings with her staff “to determine whether there is reasonable cause to conclude that a violation of law that can be remedied,” Yazbak said.
“If reasonable cause is found, then SDE (state department of education) will recommend that the State Board (of Education) hold a hearing.”
“The Commissioner’s report to the board will be a public document,” Yazbak said.