City: School Spending Legal

(Updated with Stratton response) Mayor Toni Harp responded Tuesday to Alder Michael Stratton’s accusations that the city’s schools spending is “illegal.”

You’re wrong, she said. And don’t try to “balance our budget at the expense of our children.” 

Harp’s response came in the form of a letter to Alder Stratton, who represents Newhallville and Prospect Hill.

Last Wednesday, Stratton hand-delivered a letter to the city controller, alleging that the city has been illegally paying Board of Ed health care expenses. The city never approved these payments, or had a public debate about them, Stratton claimed.

On Tuesday, Stratton received a three-fold response from the city. The mayor and city Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden both sent letters to Stratton, rebutting his claims. And city spokesman Laurence Grotheer issued a press release refuting Stratton’s argument, quoting two other city officials.

Click here to read the mayor and corporation counsel responses.

Click here to read a lengthy subsequent response to the letters from Stratton. He threatened to sue the city and recoup millions of dollars.

“I am appalled by the angry and unproductive missives that were launched at me today,” he wrote. “Whether this is illegal or not, the people have been badly hurt by this subterfuge. No budget looks like this, and no town spends 90m more than it is aware. This is the big issue, not what a court will do, or how much the Mayor and her staff will pay the city once the court rules as it surely will that they must pay the city back millions in losses.”

The competing letters appear in the midst of what has become a testy budget season. City alders are currently considering the mayor’s proposed $511 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The budget includes a 3.8 percent property tax increase.

As the Board of Alders Finance Committee considers the budget, two hearings have devolved into shouting, with Alders Stratton and Andrea Jackson-Brooks involved in that shouting both times.

Stratton has emerged as a strident critic of the mayor’s budget. Along with other members of the Board of Alders’ breakaway People’s Caucus, he has proposed across-the-board cuts in nearly every city department, including cutting the finance department in half and slashing millions of dollars from education spending.

In her letter to Stratton, Harp said she appreciates his “passion and energy” but “I would encourage you to spend time learning the details of the budget and asking questions before making criminal accusations through your law firm.”

“I remain concerned with both the direction and tone of your recent accusations, which sensationalize serious discussions and play fast and loose with key budget details,” Harp wrote.

Harp said that Stratton’s “glee” at cutting tens of millions of dollars out of the schools “seems callous to the needs of New Haven’s children and families.”

Bolden’s letter to Stratton cites the city charter to justify city spending on Board of Ed health care costs. The Board of Ed is a city department, Bolden said. Health care, pension and schools debt service payments are all accounted for in the city budget and are thus “permissible expenditures,” Bolden said.

The city has not only the legal authority, but the legal obligation to pay those Board of Ed expenses, Bolden said.

Controller Daryl Jones offered the most stinging rebuttal of Stratton’s accusations.

“Alder Stratton is new to the process and seems to have gotten himself turned around and confused,” Jones said in a release from the city. “His proposals for budget cuts change every week – one day he supports more library workers, the next he wants to cut half a million dollars from city libraries. He publicizes his apocalyptic rhetoric before he knows what’s going on and it’s hurting the process.

“He could just come in and ask me or anyone in my department, but he seems more interested in the show.”

In his letter Tuesday night, Stratton wrote:  “Here we were for years and years raising taxes on residents, laying off employees, and cutting city services and all the time it was nothing more than a sick ruse on city residents. The solution lay hidden and commingled and misidentified as ‘non education’ in the city budget and completely omitted from the ‘city contribution’ line in the BOE budget,

“How many kids didn’t have summer camp, how many people lost jobs or didnt get to become police or fire personnel, how many more crimes occurred, teens killed, neighborhoods left blighted, festivals never held, people forced to move out as taxes rose, or jobs lost because new businesses were afraid of the cities financial stability?”

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posted by: Paul Wessel on April 1, 2014  5:54pm

Victor Bolden’s letter is enjoyable reading.  Lawyers are very good at being snarky with one another.

posted by: Wooster Squared on April 1, 2014  6:05pm

The City’s shrill and over-the-top response suggests that Stratton is probably right in this dispute and the mayor and her staff are trying to bully him and shout him down.

The Board of Ed has been operating with effectively no taxpayer oversight for as long as anyone can remember, and that needs to stop.

I think Harp and co. is forgetting the fact that Michael Stratton is a lawyer, and one who’s had a great deal more legal success than any attorney the City has on staff.

Given the City’s record of routinely losing legal battles, my money’s on Stratton.

posted by: elmhurst1 on April 1, 2014  6:33pm

Wooster Squared,

So Stratton starts his first term by accusing the city of massive illegalities, says people should be put in prison, gets out of his chair to yell at colleagues during committee meetings, and proposes to cut over $40 million from schools…

and the City’s response is shrill and over the top?

“I remain concerned with both the direction and tone of your recent accusations…” that sure sounds much more extreme than Stratton’s “someone should be in prison”, “I’ll see you in 2015”, and “f**k you” tweets

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on April 1, 2014  6:49pm

Starting to feel like “The People’s Caucus” is really just an army of one.

posted by: getyourfactstraight on April 1, 2014  7:24pm

Oh cut the CR-P! What does medical benefits that BOE personnel receive have to do with hurting the children? Ridiculous! And why is it that when teachers and administrators retire from other towns they get their medical through the state? Not sure Corp Council’s opinion is all that accurate, nor the mayor’s opinion and comments. But then again this mayor is a tax and spend mayor. Always has been while at the capitol and now in the City of New Haven.

posted by: Noteworthy on April 1, 2014  7:52pm

The administration’s response is over the top. Snarky, dismissive and belittling comments and descriptions of a critic’s position, is a juvenile way of dealing with the critic, and frankly, is a direct reflection of how John DeStefano behaved for the entire 20 years he was in office. Were we not told this was a different administration? Where is it?

The legality aside, what is concerning is Harp’s budget commingles education expenses with our general fund expenditures. The BOE budget is actually much larger than it appears, indeed than it is represented which is fundamentally dishonest and misleading. That this has been going on for some years is immaterial. It is still misleading. Despite this massive infusion of cash and debt, the results of all that investment are at best lame, unfocused and unaccomplished.

Frankly, if I hear or read the phrase “not balancing the budget at the expense of our children…” That is such a lame excuse for a lack of accountability and an unwillingness to question to the same old same old.

Once again, Controller Daryl Jones, himself new to the budget and city government, pretends he is the expert. We were promised a results based budget. What is being debated has nothing to do with results. If it did, spending would have decreased, not increased with all the predictable whiners crying for more money.

What would be helpful, is if Harp, Perez, Jackson-Brooks and Jones would spend time listening and being concerned about what the public is saying and what we care about. So far, they have a tin ear.

posted by: robn on April 1, 2014  8:27pm

Correct me if I’m wrong but I think that Stratton’s point is that the city is hiding a (significant) portion of the Education budget in the main city budget as opposed to accounting for it as educational spending. Therefore when the BOA votes to approve the education budget (by stat law a yes or no without line item control) it’s voting on a smaller number than the actual education budget.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on April 1, 2014  8:47pm

I do not know Alderman Michael Stratton, but it appears to me he is campaigning already to run for mayor. All of Stratton’s yelling and grandstanding which I have seen in the Independent do not appeal to me at all. Neither does his flipflopping on certain issues relating to the budget. Neither does his disrespectful, condescending demeanor.
To call city’s spending on Board of Ed healthcare care expenses illegal before fully investigating the matter, has now called into question his judgment.
He who would grandstand, must have his facts straight in order to avoid looking like a fool.

posted by: Westville voter on April 1, 2014  8:58pm

First, this sounds like a Chris Christie style exoneration. We didn’t break the law because we said we didn’t…. Second, the technical legality is not the real issue. The real issue is that the city has apparently been systematically hiding how much we really spend on the BOE. We deserve to know exactly how much money is being spent on our substandard schools and whose pockets that money goes into. This kind of obfuscation, combined with the opacity of the BOE budget and the snarling, dismissive response anyone who asks a hard question about Meadow Street receives suggests a pattern of deception. We need to know the truth. If the alders don’t have the integrity to demand it, I hope that Stratton et al will use the legal system to get answers. New Haven will continue to fail its residents until there is accountability at the BOE.

posted by: LookOut on April 1, 2014  9:13pm

Classis City of New Haven response - we’ll try to drown the facts with a loud answer (while belittling those who don’t support the status quo).

Stay strong People’s Caucus.  The voters are behind you.  Let’s stop funneling money form city residents to the suburbs via taxing and shady gov’t programs.

posted by: thesixteenwords on April 1, 2014  10:20pm

I believe that the city can make these payments, though probably as a part of the BoE request. I think that Stratton makes a weaker case in arguing “illegality” than investigating further the finances at stake.

BUT, it is very important to note that Corp Counsel Bolden has gotten the law wrong, and he has gotten the law wrong because, in my estimation, he has cherry picked from Board of Education v. New Haven. The Board of Education, as an LEA, has been empowered by the state for the primary and secondary education of children. So, it is a state agency. (Also, that it is an independent agency is made clear by the title of the case). The Board of Education is also empowered by the city for capital projects. As Steve Mednick writes on his website, “In the second case, Board of Education of the City of New Haven v. City of New Haven, 237 Conn. 169 (1996), the City established the primacy of a city charter as the operative governing document establishing the parameters of capital spending for Boards of Education.” Cities are told by the state to provide for the capital needs of schools. In our case, New Haven has empowered the Board of Education to assume that duty, but still demands that the Board of Education follow the city’s charter, in the area of capital projects.

So, if we believe that the health care expenses fall within the education mandate of the Board of Education, should they not be made as part of the Board of Education’s funding request? I think they still should be made, but I do not think that Bolden’s cherry-picking of the court case proves that they should be made in the way the city is doing it.

posted by: Razzie on April 2, 2014  10:15am

So this is getting serious. Looks like New Haven is about to copy West Haven in suing itself!!! And in the meantime, legal fees and court costs and settlements will all be paid by the poor little homeowner / renter. Thanks a lot Alder Stratton, for doing your twisted version of civic duty.

Or is some other non-civic duty of StrattonFaxon more likely at stake?! (I don’t recall seeing StrattonFaxon’s name on the ballot last fall). As long as StrattonFaxon keeps hurling pre-litigation demands and letters at the City Administration, the issues will not get resolved. Simply more blood and more ink to be expended. But then again, I doubt that StrattonFaxon is looking to get these questions about budget process resolved. If that were their intent, they certainly would go about it in a different, more collegial way than threats, accusations and lawyer posturing.

posted by: IloveMYcity203 on April 2, 2014  10:19am


That’s exactly how I understood Stratton’s point to be.

I’m staying neutral on this one. What Stratton did was open my eyes. Now, I’ll wait and see how this all plays out, but for anyone to totally dismiss the idea of nothing being wrong is just absurd.

You don’t have to believe Stratton or don’t believe him, but the truth is, none of us commenting here knows whether or not this is illegal or not. Let’s let the investigators and courts do their job and wait it out.

Last but not least, there are some facts in these comments, but let’s sit back enjoy the ride and see what happens.

Politicians lie all the time, so don’t believe everything you hear and see.

posted by: Shaggybob on April 2, 2014  3:35pm

I’m sorry, but the children have nothing to do with this and the low blows and grandstanding have to stop from BOTH sides.

This is dollar issue not a children issue.

Mr. Bolden can’t see his way clear to making the Police Department comply with a State Statute requiring all vehicles (including Police cars) to have 2 license plates. They have them, but he claims exemption. Statute is very clear on this.
The reason I point this out is because I don’t trust his legal opinions as being sound or legal. Can we please get a second (independent) legal opinion before the taxpayers end up paying out on yet another lawsuit against the City.
I wonder what the lawsuit budget is.