Selectmen approve school funding
WINSTED — Amid objections over school-budget accounting, the Winchester Board of Selectmen approved a motion Monday, March 5, to transfer $732,149 in municipal funds to the town’s school system as a first step in funding this year’s state-mandated minimum budget requirement (MBR).The Democratic majority on the board — Mayor Maryann Welcome and Selectmen Candy Perez, George Closson, Jim DiVita and Michael Renzullo — agreed to the motion, made by Closson, to appropriate the amount to the school budget, which has been underfunded by $1,358,149 this year, according to state officials.Board members decided not to transfer the full $1.3 million yet because of an unresolved issue in the school system’s 2009-10 budget, in which approximately $636,000 in funds were incorrectly recorded by school officials who used journal entries to account for more than 250 transactions that year. While using journal entries was an improper method of accounting for the money, which went toward salaries, school officials have repeatedly assured townspeople that all transactions were legal and justified.The Winchester Board of Education has asked state education officials to review the 2009-10 accounts and offer an official declaration as to whether the transactions were legal. That decision had been expected to come in February, but word has yet to come from the state. In the meantime, members of the Board of Selectmen are concerned that the $636,000 in improperly recorded funds may need to be paid back, and have reserved approximately that amount ($626,000) pending the state’s final decision.“We indicated in November that we would meet the minimum funding requirement by the state, which is the law,” Closson said. “We had an indication that we would have a response from the state by mid-February, but that still hasn’t been received. There is indication from the superintendent that this has been appropriately addressed, but that information has not come back to us.”Attorney gives opinionTown Attorney Kevin Nelligan was asked to attend Monday night’s meeting to provide assurance that the board has legal authority to make such a large transfer of funds without the approval of a town meeting. The Winchester town charter requires residents to hold a town meeting for transfers of funds exceeding $15,000, but Nelligan issued an opinion last month stating that state law supersedes the town charter in the case of the MBR requirement, and that selectmen must do what they can to pay the bill.“It is my opinion that these transfers may be made by the Board of Selectmen acting alone, and the board may act immediately,” he wrote in the Feb. 14 report.Nelligan cited numerous case precedents that show the state can enforce MBR funding on towns and that judgments against municipalities must be paid, regardless of whether they conflict with town charters.“It is clear that local charters must give way when in conflict with state law in areas of statewide concern,” Nelligan wrote. “The paying of debts and claims and the level of funding of local education is clearly a matter of statewide concern.”At Monday night’s meeting, Nelligan reiterated portions of his opinion.“When you have a legitimate claim or judgment against you, you still have to follow state law,” he said. “You can’t use the charter to avoid that.”Republican Selectman Kenneth Fracasso, an outspoken critic of the Winchester Board of Education, said he believes selectmen should continue to seek relief from the state from the MBR requirement. Winsted’s previous Republican-led Board of Selectmen, with Fracasso as mayor, voted to underfund the school system for the 2011-12 school year, in line with a plan to close one of the town’s school buildings. But that building closure never happened.Welcome said she did not agree with Fracasso’s continued attempts to seek relief through the courts.“The past precedent for cases that have gone to court is the court has always ruled in favor of the state and the school system getting the money,” she said. “I just knew it was not a wise move [to go to court] because this would be additional money we would have to pay on top of the $1.3. million. There have been cases that have come up and every time the court has said you will pay. Why would you want to spend additional money in court knowing you can’t win?”Selectmen voted 5-2 to release the $732,149 to the school system to fund operations for the current year. Board members said they would await a state decision on the school system’s accounting practices before releasing the other $636,000 to bring the MBR into full compliance. Republicans Fracasso and Glenn Albanesius voted against the motion.