New London schools scramble to build budget with host of unknowns

New London - In the wake of budget uncertainties, school administrators had less than two weeks to pore over their individual school spending budgets and find ways to cut programs, staff and services totaling 8.2 percent.

On Monday, they delivered lists of cuts that would meet the goal of saving $3.2 million.

Now the district must move ahead with what funding it has and pursue the goal of improving student achievement.

"Now we're getting to the marrow of the district," Interim Assistant Superintendent of Schools Katherine Ericson said last week. "We're no longer talking about fluffy positions, we're talking about staff at all levels. There's really no one who hasn't felt the cuts."

This was the second time in this year's challenging budget season that school administrators had to trim their budgets, although this time it wasn't clear how many teacher layoffs, if any, the district would be rescinding after issuing notices in April.

School officials will not detail the specific programs or positions listed for cuts until the Board of Education gets the list. Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer is expected to review the individual budgets and then send the revised district budget to the board for its approval.

At first, school officials hoped that the $809,001 the district received from state Education Cost Sharing funds could be used to reinstate some of the teaching jobs, but state guidelines prohibit using the money to supplant line items in the budget.

New London is one of 30 districts named by the commissioner of education as an Alliance District. They are the 30 lowest-performing districts in the state.

"The Alliance District money is extremely scripted on the permissions we'll have to use that money. We're not allowed to put that into our regular funds money and split it between the schools," Ericson said. "It has to go toward school improvement and it has to be applied to new ideas, so this makes it extremely challenging."

As an Alliance District, the school system must submit a proposal to the State Department of Education detailing how the $809,001 in funding will be spent. State-appointed special master Steven Adamowski is working closely with Fischer to create that plan.

New London's proposal must include objectives and performance targets. The plan may include, but is not limited to, ways that will strengthen reading programs for K-3 students; extended school days or extended learning times; teacher and school leader recruitment and assignment and training on new evaluation models.

The state commissioner of education can approve or deny all or part of the Alliance District application.

Special master's role

The pressure on the district mounted days before the start of the fiscal year on July 1, when the state appointed Adamowski to oversee district operations.

Adamowski demonstrated his authority when he postponed the consolidation of the school and city's finance departments, which both the Board of Education and City Council had approved. He has voiced his opposition to the consolidation and said he was shocked to learn the school board had rushed the approval of the consolidation "without a piece of paper in front of them."

Ericson said the school district believes the consolidation will still happen, but at a much slower pace.

"We run our own payroll. To do that (consolidate) on July 1 with zero planning ... how does a district or any type of fiscal entity run without a plan?" Ericson said. "We don't have any argument about the consolidation happening, but the bottom line is we have a budget to run and we can't do it without a business office."

Fischer has estimated the school district would save about $500,000 from consolidation. The City Council offered to absorb the cost of running the finance department so the district could put that amount toward educating students.

The consolidation postponement came at the same time Adamowski announced that the school system would find ways to balance its $39.8 million budget after the city voted not to increase the school budget.

The district is still without a definite number of teachers who will return for this school year. On Thursday, the school district announced that all 68 nontenured teachers whose jobs were on the line would be reinstated, but the central office does not know yet how many have taken jobs elsewhere.

The district was able to retain the nontenured teachers because of retirements, resignations and staff who already have notified the district that they've taken other jobs. The reinstated teachers might not remain in the same schools or teaching the same subjects. Depending on their areas of certification, some might be moved to other open positions.

"This is such an unusual year because we really didn't understand our budget situation. It's ridiculous how late this is. We couldn't even build our budget because we didn't even know what the cuts were going to be," Ericson said.

During the budget process with the City Council, the school board sought a 6 percent increase in its current $39.8 million budget. That amount would have met increasing contractual costs and retained nearly all of the services and staff.

j.hanckel@theday.com

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