Ansonia school funding lawsuit appears to be settled
ANSONIA-It may mark the start of a new era of cooperation—at least until the November elections.
After nearly an hour-long meeting in executive session the Board of Education unanimously approved a settlement that will close the file on their state lawsuit against the city. It should end a state Board of Education investigation into the city compliance with the statutory minimum budget requirement for schools.
“This at least settles the dust for the current fiscal year,” said Vinnie Scarlata, a school board member. “But fiscally we’re not of the woods but we’re in a better direction than yesterday.”
The school board’s 2019-20 budget requests $6 million more— a figure Mayor David Cassetti said will never happen in his tax-strapped city.
After nearly a four and a half hour meeting Monday night the Board of Aldermen approved by a 9-2 vote to authorize their lawyer to enter into settlement negotiations as discussed in executive session.
Both Fred Dorsey, the school board’s lawyer and Chris Phipps, a school board member expressed concern about the wording of that motion.
“I’m a little bit concerned that it opens the door for something different,” Phipps said after his Board’s vote late Wednesday. “Our vote approved the proposed settlement as written. The wording of their (the Aldermen”s) motion is ambiguous with no substance. It doesn’t men tion the settlement agreement as mediated.”
But Cassetti, Corporation Counsel John P. Marini and Aldermanic President Lorie Vaccara all agreed that the Monday night vote was tantamount to a settlement. Nevertheless, Marini said the Aldermen will vote on the written proposal during their Feb. 12 7p.m. meeting in City Hall.
“They (the school board) don’t have to be concerned,” said Marini. “Everything’s positive. The settlement will be reduced to writing and the Aldermen will see it.”
Under the terms of the settlement the Board of Education will receive $850,000 for their 2018-19 budget. That number will be reduced to $800,000 and added as the minimum budget requirement for the 2019-20 Board of Education budget. State law prohibits that budget number from being reduced without facing another lawsuit or state Board of Education investigation.
Dorsey said this all adds up to a win for the school board.
“The most we would have gotten out of the lawsuit is $600,000 returned to the 2018-19 budget,” he said. “We got $850,000.”
And he said if you add in the $500,000 contingency fund the city provided last June, the total payout is $1.35 million. The $500,000 contingency fund ended a temporary injunction hearing to return $600,000 the aldermen removed after the 2017-18 budget after state education funding came in higher than expected. It was that removal that led to the lawsuit, the investigation and discord.
“So we got $1.35 million and we were only asking for $600,000,” Dorsey said.
In return, the school board must allow the city’s insurance broker to analyze claims information and evaluate insurance costs and options. The school board overspent its 2017-18 budget by $225,694 mostly because it underestimated insurance costs in its first year of self-insurance.
Under the agreement the school board also must provide the city with budgetary and financial information and implement a modern financial platform to replace their current software.
All of this was sticking point between the school board and the city in recent years.
“We could have it (the platform) ready by Jan. 1, 2020,” Dorsey said. “If we got it installed and tested out it could probably be the sole platform by July 1, 2020.”
“That’s wonderful to hear,” Marini said. “As soon as the settlement is signed we’ll extend this to a subcommittee of both boards to review plans.”
If the Aldermen give their final approval Feb. 12, Dorsey sees no reason why the State Education commission would not recommend the state Board of Education end their investigation. That could take place during the state board’s March 6 meeting.
“I’m just glad its over,” Phipps said. “This case went on long enough. Now with it behind us we can hopefully get back to a professional working relationship without the mudslinging and barbs.”
That is until the November elections. That’s when the Republicans will seek to oust more Board of Education Democrats while the Democrats will focus on getting seats at the all-Republican Board of Aldermen table as well as the mayor’s office.