Oral arguments in Ansonia School funding dispute heard

November 13, 2018

The interpretation and relevance of several state statues were debated for more than an hour Tuesday in a case to determine if Ansonia city officials were within their rights to remove $600,000 from their 2017-18 school budget appropriation.

The arguments were delivered in Superior Court in Derby, before Judge Barry K. Stevens who has up to 120 days to make a summary judgment in the matter. He gave no indication how soon that decision would come down.

At issue is whether the city violated state law that prohibits municipalities from reducing their school budget from one year to the next — or whether Ansonia rightfully exercised a provision of the bill adopted with the state’s 2017-18 budget that allowed municipalities, under certain circumstances, to adjust previously passed local budgets if more education aid is received than was expected.

That’s exactly what happened in Ansonia, said Attorney Barbara Schellenberg, representing the city.

“It was an unusual year,” Schellenberg told the judge. “The legislature was trying to give municipalities the opportunity to rectify a very difficult situation ... by amending the budget.”

Schellenberg said it was reasonable for the city to do what it did.

When the city withheld the previously promised $600,000, Schools Superintendent Carol Merlone threatened to end the 2017-18 school year early, saying she couldn’t make the payroll.

The school board took the city to court. In the meantime, the new school year started this fall with the layoff of 17 teachers and class sizes of up to 30 students.

“The (teachers) could probably be reinstated if the funding is restored,” Michael Doyle, an attorney representing the American Federation of Teachers and the Ansonia Federation of Teachers, told the judge on Tuesday.

Frederick Dorsey, who represents the Board of Education, told Stevens that the law Schellenberg cited did not apply to Ansonia, and that the unanticipated $1.8 million the school district received was in the form of restricted Alliance and Priority District grants that the city could not touch.

“It does not make any sense for the legislature to set up a mechanism for (a) municipality (to) bypass its Alliance system,” said Dorsey.

Alliance and Priority districts are the lowest performing school districts in the state, and get extra funds targeted toward improving student achievement.

Schellenberg said the city passed the budget with the anticipation of receiving more unrestricted funds, which didn’t happen.

“The choice was to raise taxes or try something else,” she told the judge, adding that the budget bill gave the city the ability to amend the education budget. Beyond that, it was forced to dip into its rainy day fund.

“The law is very clear.” Dorsey countered. “Once a municipality appropriates funds for education, those funds may only be spent by the Board of Education.”

The state Department of Education, which was not a party to the arguments on Tuesday, has sided with the school board and told the city in August that it must pay back the $600,000 and carry it forward to the current year budget or risk a state fine.

The current school board budget is $31.86 million, about half of the city’s $63.52 million budget for 2018-19.

Update hourly