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Norwich - School officials from several local towns and Norwich Free Academy aired their frustrations with state legislators and congressional representatives Monday over mandated school reform measures and said they have become increasingly dependent upon incentive grants to run their school systems.
School administrators and school board chairmen from Norwich, Sprague, Windham, Franklin and Lisbon expressed concerns that while education costs keep rising, the levels of funding for the state's major Education Cost Sharing grant program has remained flat, and federal Title 1 and 2 funding for poorer school districts has been declining.
Special education grants have never covered the rising costs of providing services to students with severe needs, the school officials said. The influx of one or two special needs students can cause a severe burden on a small town school budget.
Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver said many local towns can't afford to make up the losses when state grants do not keep up with costs, and city and town leaders balk at the prospects of raising taxes to cover the difference. One-third of Norwich public school teachers are funded through grants, for example.
But state Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, said many state grant programs - including the school reform measures Norwich, Windham and other towns are participating in, are meant to be seed grants to get new initiatives up and running.
Dolliver acknowledged that the city's school improvement funds - about $1 million in Network funding for the John B. Stanton School and $2.3 million for citywide Alliance District improvements - were used to buy equipment, curriculum and program materials that will last for years. But the core of the program also calls for adding instructional interventionists in the classrooms, extending the school day and expanding full-day kindergarten.
Now, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is advocating expanding the state's preschool slots statewide.
Norwich made a big push to launch full-day kindergarten at the start of this school year, but the program still has a mixture of full-day and half-day programs. A lottery is used to determine full-day and half-day placements.
Norwich also received federal funding to convert two elementary schools to magnet schools - the John M. Moriarty School to an environmental science and health theme and Wequonnoc School to performing arts and technology theme.
Theodore Phillips, chairman of the Norwich Free Academy Board of Trustees, cautioned school representatives that creating programs that benefit only one school or a certain number of students could set up their towns for complaints about unequal access to basic education.
Phillips said some parents might question the use of a lottery to determine full-day kindergarten, and why the Wequonnoc magnet school offers instrumental music while it is not offered at other Norwich elementary schools.
"When you're taking core curriculum offerings and moving them into magnet schools, that's where you're treading on thin ice," Phillips said.