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The Norwich Board of Education and the Norwich Free Academy Board of Trustees do need to talk.
The relationship between Norwich and its designated high school is an unusual one. The academy considers itself a private institution, but funding for its educational operations comes almost exclusively from the government. NFA serves a public function, providing a high school education for students from Norwich and the several other communities that designate it as their school, but setting policy for NFA is an internal non-elected board.
While the relationship is unusual, it works. NFA has a campus and academic facilities more typical of a private prep school than a public high school. The school has a reputation for providing a quality education and a wide course selection.
But the non-traditional set up can put the squeeze on the city when it comes to providing for the education of students in pre-K through eighth grade. When NFA sets the per pupil tuition rate the city's Board of Education has no choice but to pay. So any cuts, any belt-tightening, must come in the pre-K through eighth-grade programs. This year NFA enacted a 4 percent tuition increase - a $1.5 million jump - which accounts for virtually all of the school board's proposed 2.15 percent spending increase. It would be higher, but the board trimmed the public school portion of the budget by $608,000.
The rules for this relationship are outlined in the contract between the city and NFA. It is that contract the school board wants to talk about, and rightly so. It expires June 30, 2015. To prevent automatic renewal, the city must give at least a two-year advance notice. It has.
Norwich gets a $100 per pupil discount in tuition, as compared to other towns, because it hosts the school and must provide for its emergency and other services. Increase the discount. Norwich pays extra to support special education services at NFA, in addition to the higher tuition rate it pays for special education students. That should be examined. Also necessary is some formulaic safety valve to prevent NFA from hitting the city with tuition hikes it cannot afford.
NFA will continue to be Norwich's high school. No one is talking of changing that. But adjustments are needed.