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Old Lyme denies Lyme Academy request for $102,500 to help it stay open

Old Lyme — Despite receiving additional financial information from the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts on Tuesday night, the Board of Finance unanimously voted to deny a $102,500 allocation request the school made earlier this month.

Though the decision puts into question whether the Academy will be able to sustain itself after University of New Haven officially disaffiliates with the Academy following completion of its scheduled summer courses at the end of August, Lyme Academy board of trustees Chairman Stephen Tagliatela said Thursday the board will continue to “push forward.”

“Obviously, we are disappointed and we understand that the town has a lot of commitments,” Tagliatela said. “It will be more difficult moving forward. The amount of money we were asking for from the town was what we need to work with, and it is obviously a disappointment. However, we are going to continue to move forward and we just need to find our pathway. We are going to work very hard to find that pathway.”

According to Board of Finance Chairman Andrew Russell, Lyme Academy officials failed to provide enough financial information Tuesday to prove the request as “a viable option” for the town and its taxpayers.

As part of that decision, however, Russell also said the board will leave “the door open” for the Academy to request an additional allocation in the future, should it still need money, say, after completing planned summer programming.

“Let’s see how they make it through the summer,” Russell said. “Maybe, if they refine their numbers a little bit, that can make a difference.”

Of the financial information missing from the Academy’s presentation, which was made by Tagliatela on Tuesday night and based on numbers provided by academy board Treasurer Brian Beglin, Russell said he would have liked to have seen up-to-date numbers detailing unrestricted endowment money, as well as numbers proving academy board members took an aggressive approach to providing a bare-bones budget next academic year.

“We really didn’t have enough information from them to make a decision,” Russell said, adding that the town has been undergoing a tougher-than-usual budget season this year.

Besides trying to fund nearly $2 million in capital spending requests, while also dealing with rising medical insurance costs, the Board of Finance is expecting to spend an additional $1.2 million — or $700,000 more than what was expected — toward the education budget because of higher-than-expected enrollment rates this year.

“It’s a tough issue in terms of Lyme Academy,” Russell said. “It’s a great institution in our town, it has been. It’s attractive, it fits in with the town very well. But again, we are dealing with taxpayer money and we have to be very careful with that money.”

According to the Academy’s budget presented to the Board of Finance on Tuesday, $421,000 is available in unrestricted funds from the school’s $8 million endowment. That figure, according to the budget, is based on account values from Sept. 30, 2018, and if spent, won’t be available in years to come. That's according to UNH, which controls the endowment, Tagliatela said.

With two mortgages totaling $2.4 million, Beglin said earlier this month, the Academy also owes at least $1.5 million to UNH after the university agreed to loan money to cover deficiencies in operating expenses since affiliating in 2014. UNH is working with the Academy to see if that debt can be forgiven or reduced, Tagliatela said.

In total, the Academy expects to pay just over $700,000 over the next academic year toward maintenance, utilities and debt service, among other costs. Offsetting some of that will be $165,000 contributed by board members, as well as the $421,000 in unrestricted endowment funds, leaving the school with a deficit of $114,222.

Defending what was presented Tuesday, Tagliatela said that, even with an updated number, unrestricted funds wouldn’t have deviated much from what he had presented and that the board’s operating budget proposal was based on conservative estimates.

“All those numbers are either the same or lower than current actual numbers," he said. “They are not pumped up numbers, but we also wanted to budget enough to be sure that we wouldn’t be surprised later and realize we had messed up our estimates.”

The Academy’s request, which was made two weeks prior to Tuesday’s finance board meeting and without warning, came weeks before the Board of Finance was set to finalize its town budget for next fiscal year.

Had it been granted, Academy officials — which included Tagliatela, Beglin and Lyme Academy Campus Dean Todd Jokl — said then that the money would have helped create time for the school to affiliate with another college and would help sustain the school through the upcoming 2019-20 academic year without an affiliate.

Without the money, they said the campus may need to close over the next academic year and possibly permanently.

“We know they are doing everything they can to find someone to affiliate with and that, as a volunteer board, they are working hard,” Russell said, stating that had the Academy communicated its request in say October or November, the outcome may have turned out differently. “But we still felt we didn’t have the resources or the information needed to meet their request. They came to us at the end of this process and it was the first we had heard that they needed the money.”

Going forward, Tagliatela said the academy board will take on fundraising campaigns and reach out to its donors to fund what’s needed. The board also will continue to look for an appropriate affiliate for the following academic year. Presently, Tagliatela said the academy board is in discussion with two potential schools, one of which he hopes will be the right match for the Academy.

The Academy also plans to partake in a “robust” summer program, which will include pre-college and middle school classes, as well as adult continuing education courses. Tagliatela said he expects more than 200 students to take part.

Tagliatela said that revenues gained from summer programming won’t be enough to sustain the academy through the upcoming academic year, but will be enough to help the school break even during those months.

Additionally, the Academy announced this week it is looking to hire a part-time director to oversee the campus. The director, as stated in that announcement, will be responsible for developing and managing new and ongoing academic initiatives, including exhibitions, workshops, lectures, readings, film series and other arts events open to the public.

The Academy also updated its website and announced it has changed its name to the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts.

More information about the Academy and its summer programming can be found at lymeacademy.org.

m.biekert@theday.com

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