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School board reacts to legal threats

WINSTED — Responding to the selectmen’s move last week to begin exploring the legal feasibility of holding school officials personally liable for the district’s current deficit, Winchester Board of Education members are considering the possibility of filing a complaint with the Connecticut Commissioner of Education’s office that the town violated the minimum budget requirement for the 2009-10 school year as mandated by state law.

At their special meeting July 12, the Board of Selectmen unanimously approved a motion asking Town Manager Wayne Dove to “confer” with the board’s labor counsel to explore the possibility of holding “any and all responsible parties” who may have overseen the district’s books during the deficit build up “personally responsible” for the Board of Education overspend.

At that same meeting, which was held jointly with the school board at The Gilbert School, the selectmen also voted to request that the Board of Education remove Superintendent of Schools Blaise Salerno and its chairman Kathleen O’Brien.

Both school officials, however, have said they do not intend to resign, and the school board as a whole has yet to take any action to remove them.

“After last week’s meeting, I immediately contacted our lawyer to see what our options are,” O’Brien told the school board at their special meeting Tuesday, July 20, at Pearson Middle School.

The selectmen’s votes last week came after the board learned earlier this month the school district’s deficit had ballooned to at least $343,961. Previous reports over the last several weeks from the school administration to the selectmen and the school board had placed the shortfall at about $120,000.

Salerno told the selectmen last week the deficit was due to an over-expenditure of $589,000 in the district’s special education budget. The superintendent said the spike in costs was created by an unexpected jump in the number of students with special needs placed in the district by state agencies.

The selectmen, however, have said town officials raised the possibility of the school district running into the red as early as February.

During recent discussions regarding the deficit, the selectmen have continually expressed frustration at their inability over the last several months to get accurate and complete information from school officials on the district’s financial standing.

Responding to the complaints, O’Brien said Tuesday the school board had also been asking about the extent of the district’s budget problems, but was told by their former Business Manager Edward Evanouskas the district was not in severe financial difficulties.

“We were told we were fine over and over and over again,” she said.

Evanouskas resigned from his post July 2, after he had been placed on administrative furlough by Salerno from June 14 through to the end of the school year, June 30.

But at Tuesday’s meeting, O’Brien said in the eyes of the state, the school board actually did not overspend on its 2009-10 budget, but instead had failed to meet their minimum budget requirement for the school year.

Board member Susan Hoffnagle agreed.

“They voted a budget that violated state law,” Hoffnagle said.

In a July 13 e-mail to O’Brien, which was released to the public at Tuesday’s meeting, the school board’s attorney Mark Sommaruga said the town is “flouting the law” by “trying to have the BOE spend less money than the previous year when it has more expenses.”

“The SDOE (state Department of Education) has confirmed that you did not ‘overspend’ your budget in the eyes of the law,” Sommaruga writes in his e-mail, referring to the district’s 2009-10 budget.

Public school districts that receive Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant money must meet the minimum budget requirement (MBR), as set forth each year in state statute. In general, the MBR law requires that towns must budget the same amount for education as they had the school year before.

According to Sommaruga, however, in light of the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds that were passed along from the state directly to school districts last year, the General Assembly amended the MBR, to allow towns “to reduce their education appropriations by up to the amount of funding their local boards of education receive directly via ARRA.”

“Applying this law to your facts, the budget for 2009-10 could be no lower than the 2008-09 amount ($20,159,746), less the ARRA monies ($1,116,210), for a final minimum budget requirement of $19,043,536,” the attorney wrote to the superintendent in an April 27 letter that was also made public at this week’s school board meeting. “I understand that this bottom line figure is the same as that offered by the state Department of Education.”

The district’s approved budget for the 2009-10 school year is $19,492,397. And, although the selectmen reduced the Board of Education’s budget to the $19.043 million minimum budget requirement in April, they also demanded that the school board apply the $1.116 million in ARRA funds they received against the original budgeted amount of $19.492 million.

This would leave a target budget of $18,376,187 for the 2009-10 school year.

Salerno told The Journal Wednesday that the district currently is projected to spend a total of $18,720,148 for the 2009-10 school year. And while this would be over the town targeted number, it is $323,387 less than the state mandated minimum budget requirement of $19,043,536.

Salerno said the school administration did “our best to hold that number as close to” the Board of Selectmen’s target of $18.376 million as they could, but overages in special education and the maintenance budget — due to emergency repairs required after problems were discovered at Pearson Middle School following the electrocution of a teacher there — pushed the school district over the selectmen’s requested budget amount.

He added that with the exception of one other minor overage in a line item, all the other accounts had surpluses for the 2009-10 budget.

O’Brien told The Journal Wednesday that the issue was not uncontrolled spending by the school district, but a lack of revenue on the town’s side.

“Not enough money was raised to support that number,” she said of the $19.043 million minimum budget requirement.

Although a motion was put forward during Tuesday’s meeting to file a complaint with the state regarding the town’s failure to meet its minimum budget requirement, school board members tabled the item, but left themselves the option of revisiting the motion at a future meeting, depending on the future actions of the selectmen.

“If it becomes an issue later on down the road, we can bring it up then,” O’Brien said.

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