NORWALK, Conn. – Attorney’s fees incurred by the Norwalk Board of Education will be met this month, even though middle school kids don’t have sports – and yes, those two thoughts are connected.
At issue Tuesday night was a proposed transfer of $20,000 from the unemployment fund to the legal fund just a month after a similar transfer of $45,000. While Negotiations and Personnel Committee Chairwoman Sue Haynie took heat for the overrun, as she did at the March 19 meeting, it was explained that straggling invoices for attorney fees were part of the cause of the latest problem.
Add the two transfers together and you almost hit the figure that BOE members Artie Kassimis and Steven Colarossi wanted to spend on middle school intramural sports several months ago, a motion that was voted down.
“That money, I think, would have been better spent serving the needs of the students,” Colarossi said. “I ask my colleagues to vote against the transfer. We have to send a message that committee chairpeople don’t have a blank check. It should be the chairman of the board and the superintendent who are allowed to contact counsel.”
Kassimis seconded that thought.
“I think this money would be better spent on our children rather than on lawyers,” Kassimis said.
Haynie countered that much of this month’s expenditures went to grievances, which are not in the Negotiations Committee’s purview.
But Colarossi said only 30 percent of the overrun fit into that category.
“For the chairperson of the Negotiations Committee to not accept any responsibility for an abject failure to monitor spending money that’s represents the shared sacrifice of the taxpayers and represents a need of our students that isn’t being met, in my opinion, is something that requires us to take a long and hard look at the authority that chairpeople feel they have to contact lawyers and run up legal bills,” he said. “It’s wrong.”
He said the expenses came from one firm. “They didn’t provide timely bills,” he said. “I don’t think we should approve this.”
Haynie said Daddona should weigh in on the topic, warning members that if the transfer weren’t made, “You are basically cutting off the spigot for your interim superintendent.”
With litigation coming up and two grievances that haven’t been dealt with, Daddona said, tying his hands wouldn’t be a good idea. “We do need that legal advice or else it will get the district in further trouble,” he said.
Haynie had cautioned at the March 19 meeting that it is necessary to spend money on legal fees when negotiating contracts, listing aspects of the recently approved Norwalk Federation of Teachers contract, at a cost of about $111,000 in legal fees, as well as other contracts. She compared that with the $87,000 cost of negotiating the three-year NFT contract in 2007 – a negotiation that did not include a full arbitration, as the recent negotiation did.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Haynie said the three-year nature of the negotiations meant an unusual strain on the budget, but Colarossi countered that, as she had been chairwoman last year, she should have planned for the expenses.
Mike Barbis came to Haynie’s defense. The NFT contract accounts for 85 percent of the board’s employment costs, he said.
“Obviously you’re going to have some pretty high costs,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to determine in advance what they’re going to take,” he said. “They went to arbitration and we haven’t gone to arbitration in a very long time. The arbitrators thought things were out of kilter, they took some time and they changed some things. I think it was money that was very well spent and it was a good investment.”
Jack Chiarmonte said not having legal advice could cost the board a lot of money.
“I’d rather have nice sound legal advice than to say, ‘Well, I had to buy intramural sports,’” he said. “God knows, we’ll find ourselves in a multimillion dollar lawsuit because we didn’t answer a question.”
Kassimis ran the meeting, as Chairman Mike Lyons was out of town.
At the March 19 meeting, Lyons defended Haynie, saying, “When the contract comes up, they send you the notice that they’re ready to negotiate, you can’t sit there and say, ‘Hey we don’t have any money for lawyers so we’re not going to negotiate the contract.’”
Tuesday night, the transfer was approved, with a caveat: Interim Superintendent Tony Daddona will have sole discretion over legal expenditures for the rest of the fiscal year.
The unemployment fund has been used this year as something of a cash cow. After the March transfer, there was about $300,000 left of the $1.1 million that was in the unemployment fund last October. Money from the fund has also been spent reinstating three elementary school teachers, putting an assistant principal on special assignment and hiring 13.5 special education aides.
Correction made, 4:05 p.m.