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Norwich — After a lengthy and at times heated discussion, the Board of Education voted 8-0 with one abstention Tuesday to close the troubled Thames River Academy and by the same vote to participate in a new proposed transitional program at Norwich Free Academy for 55 to 60 Norwich high school students.
In anticipation of the Norwich school board vote, the Norwich Free Academy Board of Trustees scheduled a special meeting for 7:30 a.m. today to review and vote on the proposed program. The NFA board also must vote on the $2.5 million renovations needed for the office building at 80 Sachem St., where the program would be housed.
The renovated office building is not expected to be ready in time for the Aug. 29 first day of school, Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver told her board, so the first semester of the program will be at the city’s Bishop School, where TRA is now located.
The final TRA graduation will be held at 5:30 p.m. today at Kelly Middle School.
The Norwich school board discussion turned heated at times, with board members Aaron Daniels and Dennis Slopak questioning the $25,000 per-student tuition and the program budget outlined by NFA officials during a presentation two weeks ago.
Daniels and Slopak both said despite NFA’s claims to the contrary, the costs appear to include the renovations and building furniture and equipment they felt Norwich public schools shouldn’t have to foot.
Slopak argued that Norwich school officials should negotiate a contract with NFA for the service and complained that the board only heard the program presentation two weeks ago and now were being asked to approve it.
He also questioned the $25,000 tuition cost for “unmotivated” students, while college tuition in some places cost less.
Slopak abstained on both the motion to close the school and to participate in the NFA program. Despite his objection, Daniels made the motion to join the NFA program.
Dolliver and other board members countered that the city is responsible for educating high school students at all academic levels, and if the school system turned down the NFA offer, it would have to rework the struggling TRA to meet recommendations by the state to improve the school.
A state-funded program audit released in March found major shortcomings at TRA, including insufficient academic programs, staffing and support services.
School officials estimated improvements to TRA would cost nearly the same as the NFA program, and students still would not have access to the extracurricular activities that NFA could offer, including sports, art and clubs.
Also, Dolliver said repeatedly, none of the towns that send students to NFA negotiate for tuition for either regular education or special education.
“It’s $25,000 per student, not negotiable,” Dolliver told the board. “Turn it down and I start hiring teachers tomorrow and we try to build a high school.”
The City Council last week added $300,000 to the school budget to cover the cost of the NFA transition program and expressed strong endorsement of the NFA program. Mayor Peter Nystrom spoke at the start of Tuesday’s meeting repeating that endorsement. He told the board he met with NFA Head of School David Klein Tuesday morning and was convinced of NFA’s commitment to the program.