Charter Interpretation Prompts Wait on Board Transfer Request
NEWINGTON - The fate of a Board of Education request for a $625,000 transfer from its approved CIP budget-for the purpose of covering overages in special education costs, rescinding four teacher layoffs, and staffing two high school STEM academies-is uncertain as members of the Town Council deliberate on how the money could be moved without violating the Town Charter.

       Superintendent of Schools Bill Collins says he needs a decision in a week and a half-due to the district’s class scheduling cycle-but the Council does not meet again until June 13.

       The funding would come from the John Wallace wing configuration line item-a project that was delayed until 2019.

       The request-made in a memo issued to Mayor Roy Zartarian and members of the Council on May 18-came after the Board closed the gap between a requested 2.49 percent increase and approved 0.3 percent at the cost of the four teaching positions, as well as the opening of the biomedical and aerospace STEM academies just constructed at Newington High School.

       The Board also deferred funding for day to day maintenance, moving it over to account for unexpected special education cost overages-driven by a mix of new enrollment and outplacement of existing students.

       While the Board hopes to be able to open the academies and save the four teaching positions, the request is driven mostly by the need to cover the special education services-a mandate-said Superintendent of Schools Bill Collins.

       “It’s not what we like to do, but we find ourselves in this situation, and we’re asking for your help,” Petronio said during Tuesday’s Council meeting.

       But an opinion issued by Town Attorney Ben Ancona cautions the Council against making the transfer of unencumbered funds before the last six months of the fiscal year, while referring to Section C-808 provisions of the Town Charter.

       Because the amount is “earmarked” for a specific purpose, Finance Director Ann Harter would not be able to “certify” them as unencumbered at this time, Ancona wrote.

       “The added caveat that makes this option untenable, is that we are discussing projected funds that aren't yet in the possession of the town and there is no way to know at this moment, what funds will be available in the last 6 months of the coming fiscal year,” Ancona wrote in his opinion.

       The Board request refers to Section C-807 in asking that the amount be moved as a special appropriation-an avenue that Ancona says is also problematic because it would take an ordinance to certify the fund as “unappropriated and unencumbered”.

       Members of the Republican Party expressed reservations driven by that, as well as looming uncertainty regarding the levels of state aid the town will receive. And, if the town is handed its share of the proposed shift in teacher pensions, all areas-including the $625,000 in the CIP-may be opened for reallocation, they said.

       But on Wednesday night, Collins argued that the funds-already earmarked for the Board’s John Wallace wing configuration, which is behind schedule and won’t begin until 2019-would not be usable for other town purposes anyway.

       As for the Charter, Councilor Maureen Klett said that an attorney opinion was advisory, and that the Council could pursue a shift of the funds if it wanted to.

       “A town attorney’s opinion is just that-an opinion,” Klett said. “It’s not binding.”

       While that might be true, the Charter is, and an attorney is in the best position to interpret that, Republicans said.

       “The Charter is our constitution,” said Councilor Beth DelBuono. “Whose interpretation would you suggest we take?”

       There’s also the issue of the coming election, and whether a new Council would be bound to any decision this one makes, Republicans said.

       So Councilor Jim Marrocchini suggested passing a motion to commit the funding to the Board’s operating expenses without actually transferring it-a move that Finance Director Ann Harter said could still be problematic because it would constitute a change to the operating budget before the start of the next fiscal year.

       So the Council took a 10 minute recess, with Councilor Jim Marocchini urging his Republican colleagues to work toward a solution.

       “We’d be willing to ty and find a way,” said Councilor Tim Manke.

       “There’s always a way,” Marocchini said. “In my mind, it’s not whether we should or shouldn’t fund the staff, it’s how we do it.”

       But it will take some additional time to find, Councilors said-they opted to table the item until their June 13 regular meeting.

       The next night, Collins said that talks with district staff prompted him to ask for a definitive answer within the next week and a half.

       Petronio issued a second memo Wednesday requesting a decision by June 2.

       There are 350 students enrolled now in STEM academy courses, with high school guidance counselors working now to redirect them to other classes for the event that the programs do not open this year.

       There’s also the chance that would-be high school STEM students wind up pursuing similar opportunities elsewhere-costing the district more in magnet tuition-Board members noted during budget discussions.

       “Parents are understandably very concerned about all the decisions necessary to achieve the targeted appropriation,” Petronio’s memo reads.

       Councilor Carol Anest asked Collins-who attended the meeting-about the volume of magnet school costs.

       It costs the district $6,000 per student-of the $23,000 to $25,000 total-to cover magnet school tuition and transportation. If the 50 students enrolled in each of the STEM academies were to opt for CREC, it would cost the town more than the hiring of the two teachers, Collins said.

       Not only that, the district risks losing its 58 percent reimbursement for the construction of the $2 million academies, he said.

       “Why would the state give you money for a project that will not open?” he said.

       On Wednesday, Collins said that to cover special education, the STEM teachers, and rescind the layoffs, it would take $733,000.

       The requested 2.49 percent was stated as “baseline”-the cost of payroll increases and maintaining what the district has in programs. Republican Councilors pointed to a $1.2 million health benefit credit, as well as the $515,000 that was sitting in a non-lapsing surplus account established last year, but the Board can only transfer 1 percent of its credits into that account per year.

       So at its previous meeting, around $700,000 was added to the account’s $515,000, with around $586,000 left hanging for expenditure this year.

       Utilizing health benefit surplus funds for staff salaries-a fixed cost being covered by potentially one time credits-will create a $1.7 million hole in the next budget cycle, Collins said.

       On Wednesday night, his comments were more heated-addressing members of the Republican majority specifically.

       “What I saw last night was unacceptable. You have to decide whether you’re willing to provide an education for the kids in this town,” he said. “And if you don’t, say it.”

       The next day, Zartarian described the decision deadline as a “moving target”, saying that he was not sure how the Council would proceed.

       “It’s not about wanting to or not wanting to fund certain teachers,” added Deputy Mayor Dave Nagel over the phone. “We have to find a way to do it without violating our Charter.”