NEWINGTON - Board of Education members agreed this week not to accept a Town Council proposal to cover unanticipated budget costs.
This came after the schools’ attorney, Shipman & Goodwin, advised the BOE against accepting the council’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) due to its legal ramifications. In the memorandum, the town asked the board to use a health benefits refund expected this fall to hire two STEM teachers for the high school career academies and cover unexpected special education overages, both of which total $578,000. Any remaining balance after applying the refund (of a yet-to-be-determined amount) would be transferred by the council from the board’s unused capital expenses to its operating budget.
School attorneys Thomas Mooney and Jessica Richman-Smith said relying on funds it does not yet have would put the board in a negative operating deficit, which is prohibited by state statue.
“We advise the board against expending funds in reliance upon anticipated surplus funds or the Town Council’s contingent promise of additional appropriations in the future through an agreement that may not be enforceable in any event,” read the 12-page legal review from the team.
Furthermore, they determined, the council’s acknowledgment of these costs’ necessity makes the town responsible for the appropriation. The attorneys referenced the state’s leading case on school board autonomy, “Ellington Board of Education v. Board of Finance of the Town of Ellington” (1963) to support their point.
In their discussion of the issue Tuesday night, the school board and Superintendent Bill Collins came to a general consensus that the memorandum of understanding was too risky.
“It was an interesting proposal and a very creative one on behalf of the Town Council, but you would be breaking the law by signing it,” Collins told board members.
Although the state Supreme Court ruling requires the town to appropriate funds it deems necessary to school operation, posing the challenge could land both parties in a contentious court battle, he went on to add.
“There are boundaries and we all have to stay in our lanes,” Collins said. “The town functions very well together. I don’t want to start any fights.”
Collins pointed out that the board’s decision to reject the council’s offer does not solve the problem.
“We’re in a very significant hole and they’re going to have to get us out of it,” he said.
Members agreed they could not afford to make up the reimbursement should the health refund not be enough to cover it and the newly elected council in November choose not to honor the prior agreement.
“There’s no way I could ask our superintendent to be personally liable,” Emily Guion said. “I know I don’t have that money.”
“I’m comfortable taking the risk, personally, but imposing that risk on another individual, now I can’t do that,” Stephen Sylvia declared.
Although the group agreed that they could not accept the memorandum of understanding, no formal vote was taken Tuesday night.
Mayor Roy Zartarian emailed board Chairwoman Nancy Petronio asking the schools’ attorneys to contact Town Attorney Ben Ancona, who helped draft the document. The group should discuss how both parties might proceed, he wrote.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.