Calls to increase school funding dominate Norwich's first budget hearing

Norwich - Pleas to increase funding for the city's public schools dominated Thursday's first public hearing on City Manager Alan Bergren's proposed combined $118.4 million combined city government and school budgets.

Bergren recommended a 1.5 percent, $1.05 million increase in the school budget, for a total budget of $71.6 million for the coming year. But the total falls $572,000 short of the board's revised budget request, which calls for a 2.31 percent increase over this year's $70.5 million budget.

The increase mainly would fund restoration of universal full-day kindergarten, middle school world languages and instrumental music - all top priorities for the Board of Education.

About 50 people attended Thursday's hearing.

Eltane Mascelus, a Haitian immigrant, said she is very grateful for the education system in the United States. Mascelus recalled being raised by her godmother, who could not afford to send her to school until she was 11 years old. She sat in class with children ages 5 and 6 and felt out of place and teased.

"I want to tell you how important you are to us," Mascelus told the City Council.

She said the school system gives the city's children and their parents the opportunity to learn. Mascelus is a student at Norwich Adult Education and has three children in Norwich schools, one at Norwich Regional Technical High School, one at Teachers' Memorial Middle School and one at John B. Stanton School. She marveled that all the schools are free.

Resident Lin Ping said she is a student at Norwich Adult Education and has a son in third grade at Veterans' Memorial School. Ping said she is taking classes to become a U.S. citizen, and she and her husband own several homes in Norwich, "where we have decided to make our future for ourselves and our child."

Ping urged the city to support the school full school budget as requested. She said her son's class is too large, at 25 students.

"He is also not learning any foreign languages," Ping said. "I would like to see more money being used for education and support for our children, who are our future."

Resident Shiela Hayes said it's important to fund the four kindergarten teachers needed to expand the current full-day kindergarten to all eligible students. Currently, some schools have a mixture of full-day and half-day classes with slots allocated by lottery. Expanding full-day kindergarten complements the state's push for more early childhood education, Hayes said.

Resident Kim Jacobs told the City Council that she took her children out of Norwich public schools and sent them to St. Patrick's Cathedral School on Broadway. There, she said, they offer full-day preschool, full-day kindergarten, foreign languages and music. Jacobs said her children could read fluently by the time they finished kindergarten.

"This is the norm, not the exception," she said.

Three members of the Board of Education and Superintendent Abby Dolliver also addressed the City Council. Board Chairwoman Yvette Jacaruso said providing those basic programs is tied to economic development. If the city wants to attract young, professional families to Norwich, the school system has to be attractive.

Resident John Blackburn was the lone speaker to oppose added funds for the school budget. Blackburn said many residents haven't had a raise in years, and city taxpayers can't afford the higher taxes.

If they got a raise, he said, it was only about 1 percent. "Don't spend it all in one place," he said.

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