School board demands city contribution in cash

October 10, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — Words weren’t minced by one city school board member in reacting to a city offer to provide $250,000 worth of services to the district this school year rather than pay for them.

“Hell, no,” said Board Vice Chairman Hernan Illingworth.

The rest of the nine member panel concurred, voting unanimously Tuesday to have the board’s attorney send city officials and the city council a letter demanding the full amount the city council appropriated to the district for the 2018-19 fiscal year or face a legal challenge.

“Under state statutes the contribution must be in cash,” Maria Pereira said.

Anything else, Pereira said, opens the board up to being shortchanged by the city and would results in an illegal lowering of the city’s Minimum Budget Requirement. Such a reduction could lead to a state fine and lower school budgets for years to come, Pereira added.

“I agree it is illegal for us to allow the city to do that,” Dennis Bradley, another board member said. “If the city is unwilling to give us the money we place them on legal notice that we will take whatever action we need to legally.”

The issue stems from a $250,000 discrepancy in the district’s 2018-19 operating budget’s bottom line.

School finance officials say the district’s operating budget should be $230,394,025, not the $230,144,025 advanced by the city’s budget office.

The city council approved a $1,039,000 increase for this year. City Budget Director Nestor Nkwo effectively lowered the increase to $789,419, declaring that part of the city’s 2017-18 increase was to compensate for a mid-year rescission of $250,000 by the state in its Education Cost Share grant to the city. As such he maintained it should not be carried forward as part of the minimum budget requirement.

The rescission came months after the City Council had approved its contribution to the school budget. State law prohibits municipalities like Bridgeport from reducing its school budget contribution for any reason.

School and city officials have met several times over the discrepancy and on Friday city officials said a solution was in the works.

“The city is working in cooperation with the BOE to cover the $250,000 shortfall for this year,” Rowena White, a spokeswoman to Mayor Joseph Ganim, said.

The city promised to pay for $250,000 worth of school board expenses without transferring the funds to the district, and to also restore that amount to the district’s 2019-20 operating budget, Schools Superintendent Aresta Johnson told the board.

“Be mindful that while the promise is on the table it may not necessarily to come through,” Johnson told the board on Tuesday. “There are no guarantees.”

Johnson recommended that the board stay the course and press for the cash.

Jessica Martinez, chair of the school board’s finance committee agreed, saying the money should be released to the district.

Illingworth said this is not the first time the city administration has tried to shortchange the district and its 21,000 students.

“It keeps happening over and over and over again,” Illingworth said, adding in meetings with city officials Nkwo kept talking about providing the “minimum” to the district as if that should be the goal.

“It’s not Nestor, it’s the mayor,” Chris Taylor said.

While he agreed the district is entitled to the money approved by the city council, Taylor said he was not big on spending a ton on legal fees to get $250,000.

City officials did not immediately respond to the school board action.

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