New London superintendent threatens to close schools early

New London - Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer is threatening to close the public schools six days short of the 180-day legal minimum, telling the state Department of Education that otherwise the school system would end the fiscal year in a deficit, which is not permitted by law.

State officials said Thursday an attempt to end the school year early is "not acceptable" and could be met with legal action.

A May 26 letter from Fischer to Daniel P. Murphy, the director of legal and governmental affairs for the state education department, said the school district faces a $600,000 shortfall because the city refused to release $458,811 in Education Cost Sharing funds to the district and is forcing the schools to repay $142,368 in Child Nutrition Program funds.

"To meet these obligations and our legal obligation under Connecticut statute to operate a budget with no deficit by year's end, I will close schools on June 10, 2010," Fischer wrote. "This time is predicated on an operating cost of $110,000 per day."

Murphy said closing the schools before the 180-day mark would render the district "out of compliance" with state law.

"Then we've got a problem," Murphy said. "This is not to be taken lightly."

Murphy said no waiver would be issued and that the state attorney general's office could become involved.

Fischer, in an interview Thursday, was less definite about his plan, characterizing the ending of the school year on June 10 as "an option." He acknowledged that would be illegal but said the same is true of ending the fiscal year in a deficit.

"It's a violation of the law either way," Fischer said.

Fischer said Thursday the school administration and the city have been discussing the financial impasse "for the past nine months and got nowhere."

The superintendent also wrote in the May 26 letter that failure of the city to turn over the funds could lead to a $1.9 million shortfall in the 2011 fiscal year, which could result in cutting the equivalent of 23 teacher salaries.

Fischer did not present the option of ending the school year early to the Board of Education for a vote. On May 27, a day later, he notified the board of the letter to the state.

Fischer's plan caused a split Thursday along party lines on the school board.

Democrat Alvin Kinsall, the board president, said Fischer's letter "put the state on notice."

"I think he's doing the right thing," Kinsall said. "If we don't have the money we can't operate the schools."

Kinsall said the school board did not authorize Fischer to send the letter and the superintendent did not have to seek permission to send it.

"It has nothing to do with policy," Kinsall said.

Republican member Barbara Major, on the other hand, was "furious" at the thought of ending the school year early.

"What is (Fischer) doing?" she said. "He's being a bull in a china shop."

Major said Kinsall should have called a special meeting of the board to discuss the issue.

"I'm beyond frustrated," Major said.

GOP member Jason Catala said Fischer was using "what seems like a scare tactic."

"We need to be more about students and not so much about bureaucracy," Catala said.

Green Party board member Ronna Stuller said the city was "acting petty" about the ECS funds but said a "less extreme way" than ending the school year early could be found to solve the problem.

"I think it's time for a real deep breath and get out of panic mode," Stuller said.

Mayor Rob Pero also disagreed with the superintendent's tactic and said the city would seek an injunction against the school system to prevent the early closure of the schools.

"I think it's disappointing and sad to use kids as political bait," Pero said.

Pero said the City Council "wants to come to some kind of resolution on this."

Kinsall, along with school board member Susan Connolly, will meet in a closed session Monday with Pero and Deputy Mayor Adam Sprecace to continue discussion about the ECS funds.

Murphy has also offered to meet with city and school leaders about the funding disagreement.


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