Winchester, a town with just three public schools, may have to close them by the end of the year unless action is taken to resolve financial problems related in part to the alleged theft of more than $2 million by a former municipal employee.
To keep the schools open, Winchester has asked for an advance in state funding, which may not be legally possible. The town’s board of selectmen also could consider levying a special tax, but town leaders say that option is unlikely. The State Board of Education voted Wednesday to investigate the financial situation in Winchester, which is in northwest Connecticut.
Thomas Danehy, superintendent of schools, told the state board Wednesday that the district, one of the lowest performing in the state, has not been able to pay its bills because it is not getting enough funding from the town.
“We are extremely concerned about whether the schools can remain open through December,” Danehy said, “and of course dismayed to have untold numbers of unpaid creditors.” The town has “no fund balance, no bond rating, no financials needed for borrowing and too little cash.”
Danehy said the town’s former finance director, Henry Centrella Jr., has been arrested on financial fraud charges and that the town has suffered “a massive financial loss.”
Centrella was fired in January after financial irregularities came to light. A forensic audit identified more than $2 million that town officials and state police say Centrella stole from the town between January 2008 and November 2012, according to the warrant for his arrest. Town officials fear the actual amount is much higher, said Kevin Nelligan, Winchester’s town attorney.
Nelligan said an investigation into missing funds continues. The theft, he said, has devastated the town.
“This is a lot of money in a town that really needed it,” said Nelligan, who’s been town attorney for about 20 years. Winchester has always had “budget issues and tight money.” The thefts have “pushed us over the edge.”
Centrella, 58, has been charged with five counts of first-degree larceny and remains jailed, with bail set at $100,000 cash.