State budget calls for $263,000 in Amistad funding this year

The schooner Amistad is docked at Chubb's Wharf at Mystic Seaport on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. The new bipartisan state budget includes $230,000 for owner Discovering Amistad this year, but no funds for it in the 2018-19 fiscal year. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The schooner Amistad is docked at Chubb's Wharf at Mystic Seaport on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. The new bipartisan state budget includes $230,000 for owner Discovering Amistad this year, but no funds for it in the 2018-19 fiscal year. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Stonington — Discovering Amistad, the nonprofit educational organization that now owns and operates the schooner, will receive $263,000 in state funding for 2017-18 under the state budget approved by the General Assembly.

Gov. Dannel Malloy signed most of the budget into law Tuesday.

But the budget calls for no state aid in 2018-19, which will force Discovering Amistad to look for more grants and donations from foundations, businesses and individuals, according to Len Miller of Essex, the group’s chairman.

He said his organization cannot rely on receiving any state aid due to the state’s fiscal problems.

“We need to find other major funding sources as we go forward,” he said.

Miller said that, during the first five months of the fiscal year, Discovering Amistad did not spend any of the $236,000 it is now slated to receive. Instead it relied on other sources of funding.

“We are operating with money we have, not with money we hope to have,” he said.

The ship is at Mystic Seaport, where it will spend the winter. It spent most of this year in the state visiting New London, Bridgeport, New Haven and other ports, offering educational programs for children, teens and adults.

While its programs are popular with schools, Miller said many districts, facing budget cuts and decreases in state aid, do not have money to pay for the programs. He said a school program in Bridgeport this year was funded by a foundation and that is the school model he sees going forward — having businesses, foundations and others sponsoring an Amistad program for a school. He said donors funded scholarships for teens who attended a summer camp aboard the ship this summer.

“It’s difficult for us to say no to Hartford and New Haven, where schools want our programs,” he said. “Many of these districts need private support.”

He said his organization was awaiting word to see if it has obtained a major grant, which he called promising.

“Our board is actively looking for potential other sources to make up for the loss in state funding,” he said.

Earlier state budget proposals had eliminated funding for the fledgling organization as it works to get the schooner back on solid footing and repair its reputation following the financial problems of Amistad America, the ship's former owner.

Miller had said this summer that without state funding this year, Discovering Amistad may have had to consider phasing out the organization. He said state funding is needed until the organization can become self-sufficient through grants, private donations and revenue from its educational programs. It now appears that will have to occur in 2018-19.

When Amistad America shut down, and the state seized the ship, it owed more than $2 million to a large group of organizations, banks, individuals and small businesses. Those creditors were never paid.

Amistad America, formed in 1998, lost its nonprofit status in 2012 for failing to file three years of tax returns. Nevertheless, the state continued to make annual $360,000 payments to the organization, which fell deeper and deeper into debt, until finally freezing funding for the 2014-15 fiscal year as controversy over the organization’s lack of fiscal accountability intensified. The organization had provided little documentation about how it was spending state money.

Following stories by The Day about how Amistad America had spent the $9 million in state funding, and calls for an investigation by state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, the state conducted an audit, seized the ship in the summer of 2014 and sold it to Discovering Amistad for $315,000. The state then provided $957,000 to Discovering Amistad so it could purchase and repair the ship.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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