North Stonington school board to meet tonight to discuss voter-rejected budget

North Stonington - The Board of Education will hold a special meeting tonight to discuss the 2012-13 school budget, which failed at a referendum Tuesday.

The board had planned to discuss, among other things, the failed $12.5 million budget at an emergency meeting Wednesday but canceled that meeting when board member Robert Testa said the meeting was illegal, board Chairman David McCord said Thursday.

Testa "didn't think it fit the description of an emergency," McCord said, adding later, "Mr. Testa has filed Freedom of Information complaints repeatedly against the board, and I didn't want the board to have to pay the legal expenses for that."

Testa could not be reached for comment Wednesday or Thursday.

Unlike regular meetings, for which state open records laws require advance notice, emergency meetings can be called for emergency purposes without the need to notify the public ahead of time.

The school board did post an agenda for the emergency meeting. But only emergency matters can be considered at such meetings, and the bar is high for what constitutes an emergency, according to Tom Hennick, public education officer of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

Superintendent Natalie Pukas requested Wednesday's emergency meeting to, in part, discuss the budget; Pukas, who is retiring at the end of the month, also wanted to discuss concerns over the district's transition to the new superintendent, Peter Nero, McCord said.

Though the emergency meeting was canceled, the eight-member board met anyway. Board members first held a workshop to discuss Nero's employment, McCord said; then, at Pukas' request, they met to discuss what had been listed on the emergency meeting agenda as possible executive session discussion "Concerning the Performance of Public Officials/Board of Education."

The FOI Commission considers it a meeting any time more than one board member gathers to discuss board business, according to Hennick. One of the few exceptions to that rule is if members of the same board and party gather to discuss board business, which is considered a caucus.

Notice of regular meetings must be posted at least 24 hours in advance, according to the FOI laws. Special meetings differ only in that board members cannot add new items to the agenda. Special meeting agendas must also be posted on the agency's website in addition to the town clerk's office and the place of business.

At tonight's meeting, the board will also vote to act on one of two conflicting policies that dictate what the board should do if its chairman resigns. Darren Robert resigned from the post in mid-May following escalating clashes with Testa.

Under one policy, the vice chairman automatically becomes the chairman, as happened with McCord. But another policy, adopted at the same time as the first policy in what may have been a board oversight, states that the board must elect a new chairman.

The board will decide which policy to act on and suspend the competing policy, sending it back to the policy committee for revision, McCord said.

Personality conflicts and criticism of the district's leadership have fractured the board in recent months. The board's propensity for voting a 4-4 tie has resulted in a stalemate of sorts, McCord said.

Meanwhile, the board has work left to do. In addition to sorting out Nero's contract once Connecticut issues the required certification for Nero - currently superintendent of the Cranston, R.I., schools - the board must reduce its budget proposal in hopes of voter approval at the next referendum.

The board plans to reduce the proposed increase from 3.7 percent to 2.6 percent, McCord said.

Editor's note: This version corrects an earlier version.

The school board hopes to approve a new budget and present it to the Board of Finance Wednesday, he said. Following the meeting the superintendent search committee will meet to discuss Nero's pending contract.

j.cho@theday.com

If you go

Who: North Stonington Board of Education

What: Special meeting

When: 6:30 p.m. today

Where: Wheeler High School gymnatorium band room

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