Ansonia residents, students, and educators had been ripping a $600,000 cut to the school district’s budget for more than 45 minutes at the Armory Thursday when First Ward Alderman Phil Tripp took the floor and promptly upped the ante.
Tripp, whose falling out with Mayor David Cassetti’s administration has led to a years-long schism in the local Republican party, said City Hall took money from the school district because the Cassetti administration has over-spent the city side of the budget by $1 million.
“They’ve got a million-dollar hole in their budget and (are) now looking for a way to plug their hole in their budget,” Tripp said.
“So what do you do? ‘Oh the Board of Education’s got a lot of money, let’s reach back and grab $600,000 from the Board of Education.’ Wrong answer! It’s illegal!” Tripp said. “The Board of Education is not an ATM machine for the mayor’s office to tap into every time they’ve got a financial problem!”
Thursday’s hearing was called by the Ansonia tax board to get comments from the public on the $600,000 cut to the school district’s budget made by the Board of Aldermen.
The Aldermen’s approved the cut back in January without giving the public an opportunity to weigh in.
So Thursday’s retroactive public hearing was called in part to cover themselves legally, because the school district is taking the city to court over the funding cut.
School officials view the cut as illegal under state education funding law. Without the money they’ll finish the school year in the red.
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.
More than 100 people attended the hearing at the Ansonia Armory. Twenty-four people spoke.
Every single person who took the microphone blasted the cut.
They even included Sixth Ward Alderman Kevin O’Brien, one of the Aldermen who had voted for it.
“I’m telling you right now, I made a mistake,” O’Brien, whose wife is a non-union employee at Prendergast School, said. “That was wrong . . . I apologize.”
Superintendent Carol Merlone said she and other school officials tried to compromise with city officials but were rebuffed at meetings last month.
She also rebutted criticisms from city officials that the school district hasn’t been transparent with its finances.
She said she sends monthly financial reports to Cassetti’s office with details of the school district’s books.
Whether he reads it or not is up to him, she said. “I don’t know where that packet goes.”
She said the information will now be posted on the school district’s website for anyone to see.
Article continues after video of Merlone’s remarks.
After the hearing the tax board voted unanimously to send the $600,000 cut to the city’s Aldermen after an explanation from the city’s comptroller, Rich Bshara, in which he said the city had been hamstrung by last year’s state budget mess.
Others who spoke at Thursday’s hearing asked city officials to consider the impacts of spending less on education.
Chera Gaudino began teaching first grade at Ansonia’s Prendergast School 14 years ago. At the time, she said she received $500 a year to buy educational supplies for her students.
The number has now dwindled to $150, which she said pays “for glue sticks and pencils until the month of March, if I’m lucky.”
The cost of the rest of the materials she needs come out of her salary — which amounts to hundreds of dollars a year she’s not spending on her own two children.
“I have no choice but to take money from my own family to purchase teaching materials and supplies that are essential for my students to succeed,” Gaudino said Thursday during a public hearing of the city’s tax board.
Four sophomore students from the high school — Ashmal Baig, Tamia Esson, Idalisse Martinez, and Brian Le — stood behind Merlone as she spoke and followed her comments with messages of their own.
“We’re the future of this country and this town and this city,” Baig said. “By cutting this budget you’re limiting our education . . . Everybody deserves to have the opportunity to have a good education.”
“How do you expect me to succeed if you take away all our resources,” Maliga Mosley-Williams, another sophomore, said later.
Christian Rudolph, whose son is in second grade, said city leaders were looking in the wrong place to balance the books.
“The answer isn’t budget cuts,” he said. “The answer is to raise more revenue.”
The article continues after this story on the meeting from Fox 61.
Samantha Endres, who has three children in the city’s schools, said teachers are therapists, counselors, and comforters in addition to educators.
“Our teachers earn it every moment of every second of every day,” Endres said.
Some wondered whether the groundswell of support for the school district would fall on deaf ears.
“I personally don’t feel like our voices matter,” said Melanie Santiago, a parent.
Another parent, Jennifer Fasciano, said home values in the city will fall even if taxes don’t rise when the schools suffer.
Her comments were echoed by Lisa Glazer, who said she works as a real estate agent.
“When I bring people in from out of state, the first thing they ask is ‘How are the schools?’” Glazer said. “It’s really difficult for me to answer that question when it comes to Ansonia.”
Fasciano urged those in attendance to get more informed and involved.
“I’m starting to pay attention,” she said. “Shame on me for not doing that before.”
Aldermanic President Lorie Vaccaro said the Aldermen would probably vote again on the cut at their meeting next month.
He declined to comment on the remarks made during Thursday’s public hearing, including Tripp’s.