Citing legal advice from the town attorney’s firm, town officials this week withheld their support for a request for American Rescue Plan Act funds for a local church’s proposed new preschool program.
Pending further information, the Board of Selectmen during its regular meeting declined to move Saint Aloysius School’s request for $150,000 to New Canaan’s two other funding bodies, the Board of Finance and Town Council, effectively stalling it.
Selectmen Kathleen Corbet and Nick Williams both spoke favorably of Saint Aloysius’s plans for a new school and “education and faith center” for its downtown campus.
“I think it’s terrific in terms of what you plan to do—I saw the whole plans for the campus, it looks great,” Corbet said during the meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference.
“I just wonder—we have not had a chance to talk about it—but there’s a lot of preschools in New Canaan, both commercial and not-for-profit and I am just wondering this is really to my colleagues here whether we ought to be thinking about if there is going to be a distribution from the ARPA funds, whether it’s not more appropriate to consider all of the preschools that we have here in town rather than just singling one out,” Corbet continued.
Williams agreed with Corbet, noting that New Canaan has “a number of preschools in town that have survived COVID and it’s been difficult, so I would want to rethink this and maybe look at supporting more than one particular preschool.”
Addressing the Rev. Rob Kinnally, who presented the ARPA request to the selectmen, Williams added, “The other thing and I have to mention this, Father, and I’m not sure about the law on this with respect to the use of ARPA funds to support educational facilities that encourage or include religious teaching. I think we have a mix in town. I think you had mentioned that St. Mark’s has faith-based, First Presbyterian is not faith-based, which is where my kids went. So I would want to hear from [Town Attorney] Ira [Bloom] and his firm.”
In fact, a lawyer from the town attorney’s firm already had weighed in on the matter. In a Dec. 16 email to Administrative Officer Tucker Murphy—an email cited at the selectmen meeting, though it hadn’t been furnished as part of the public packet for the meeting and was obtained by NewCanaanite.com afterwards through a Freedom of Information Act request—attorney Nick Bamonte of Berchem Moses PC said, in part, “After reviewing the specific provisions of ARPA as well as the Final Rule implementing ARPA issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and based upon my current understanding of the facts, I believe the requested expenditure would not be an eligible use of ARPA funds and the Town is not permitted to offer those funds to the School [Bamonte’s emphasis]. At least not without further information.” (More on Bamonte’s email below.)
First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said as the Board took up the item that he would recuse himself as a parishioner of Saint Aloysius Church, though not before indicating that he wanted his fellow selectmen to approve the ARPA request so it could move along to the next round of town funding bodies.
“I should make it clear, because I am parishioner of Saint Aloysius, I am going to recuse myself from this matter,” Moynihan said. “I would make one comment: I think this matter should be moved on to the Board of Finance and Town Council for consideration, but you folks are welcome to ask questions.”
In fact, they were welcome to do even more than that. Corbet and Williams said they weren’t comfortable moving the ARPA request along to the Board of Finance and Town Council without further information, so it remains a request at the selectmen level. (The selectmen did vote 3-0 in favor of a separate ARPA request regarding an emergency management command vehicle.)
Williams said, “Like Kathleen, I am very much encouraging with respect to what you are trying to do, including the buildout for St. A’s which I think is a fantastic addition to town. On the other side of the street we’ve got the new library, so all of this is great. On the legal side I just want to make sure that we get this right with respect to the use of ARPA funds.”
Those attending the meeting via Zoom included the heads of New Canaan’s popular Toddlertime Nursery School as well as Stamford’s Camp Playland.
The discussion comes as New Canaan works the last approximately $450,000 of its original $6 million ARPA allocation. It also comes as the school district braces for what is expected to be its largest-ever kindergarten class in three years—meaning New Canaan likely will see a larger market for pre-K programs, as well as daycare.
Asked whether St. A’s has plans to launch a daycare program, Kinnally said, “People in town have approached me and we have investigated that. We have not made a final decision. I didn’t have enough information on that to present to you today so I did not want to be without detail on that. But safe to say it is under consideration. It is quite a task, and it’s actually quite expensive for the students and their parents so we want to keep the cost reasonable and the state requirements are quite involved, let’s just put it that way. But the need, I would agree, exists in town.”
In his email, Bamonte listed the four ways that a local government is allowed to use ARPA funding. They include “assistance to nonprofit entities that have experienced a public health or negative economic impact as a result of the pandemic,” he said.
So in order to qualify, nonprofit organizations must demonstrate “that they have been negatively impacted by the pandemic in a way that can now be addressed/mitigated by receiving ARPA funding [Bamonte’s emphasis].”
He continued: “Here, as a threshold question, it is unclear if the School is in fact an eligible nonprofit entity. But even if it is, based on what has been reported to me thus far, I am struggling to find a clear connection between how the School was negatively impacted during COVID in a manner that now requires capital improvements for a new day-care center. The funds must help solve or address the prior negative impact. So based on what I know, I am not comfortable authorizing the requested use of funds. I suggest that the School/its legal counsel reach out to us with further details if they believe that the planned improvements do have some clear relation to an impact from COVID, and offer justification why they believe such an appropriation is allowed under ARPA.”
Despite the legal advice and Moynihan’s own “recusal,” which he reiterated, the first selectman pushed for the Board to move the St. A’s ARPA request along to the other funding bodies.
According to Moynihan, Bamonte didn’t know in putting together his memo “that the schools operate as a nonprofit.”
“Nick [Bamonte]’s question separately about whether there’s any conflict with, I guess, federal law or Constitutional law or whatever with church-and-state, I think most of the other nursery schools are tenants in church buildings and not sponsored by the church,” Moynihan said. “But in this case this is a nonprofit school. Many of the other pre-K programs are profit-oriented.”
When Corbet and Williams continued to cite Bamonte’s own email, quoted above, Moyinhan said, “But that’s a finding that the decision-maker like the Board of Finance or the Town Council would have to make. That’s not something a lawyer decides.”
Corbet responded, “We are the Board of Selectmen so we decide if we put it forward.”
This exchange followed:
Williams (to Moynihan): This is your lawyer giving you advice that—
Moynihan: —not my lawyer. The town’s lawyer.
In the end, Williams said the Board should table the matter and it was not voted on by the selectmen.
Kinnally said during his presentation that Saint Aloysius School currently is K-8, and that beginning in the fall of 2024 it planned to add a a program for 3- and 4-year-old children, as well as a “transitional kindergarten” program. Tuition for the preschool would be $10,800 for St. A’s parishioners and $13,000 for non-parishioners, he said.
“We are the only Catholic elementary school in the Diocese of Bridgeport, which is Fairfield County basically, that does not have pre-K education,” Kinnally said. “So we have been wanting to get into this. We were doing it anyway and we were just hopeful that we are going to help meet a need in the town. We have done some feasibility studies, both within the parish in town, and in general they demonstrate that there is a need for that. We also feel that the full-day option is going to be helpful to some parents who really need to have their kids there longer than just a few hours and so we also we have seen on social media a great need and when registration time comes a little bit of a panic among parents in the town.”
During the same meeting, Corbet and Williams pushed back on Moynihan’s attempt to deny a new term to Police Commission Chair Paul Foley.