Norwich school board to push plans for expanding full-day kindergarten

Norwich - School officials hope to make expanding full-day kindergarten the top priority when the Board of Education meets Tuesday to finalize its 2014-15 budget in the wake of the City Council's vote Monday against adding money to the school spending plan.

The school board's budget expenditure committee will meet at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Kelly Middle School prior to the full board meeting at 5:30 p.m. in the school community room.

Superintendent Abby Dolliver said Wednesday she will meet with her administrative staff to iron out any possible savings in technical areas of the budget that would not affect programming. The staff also will consider any possible shifting of some costs into grant funding to preserve programs.

"My priority is to have full-day kindergarten," Dolliver said.

The Board of Education had requested $72.8 million, a $1.8 million increase over this year's budget, including funding for four additional kindergarten teachers, two library media specialists, two world language teachers and a music teacher to restore programs that had been eliminated over the years in budget cuts.

The City Council Monday approved the $71.5 million total recommended by City Manager Alan Bergren, a 1.5 percent increase over this year's $70.5 million total. An attempt to add money to the budget failed in a 4-3 council vote.

Norwich has partially restored full-day kindergarten using state Alliance District and Network School funding, but the seven elementary schools still have a mixture of full-day and half-day programs. Some full-day slots are assigned by lottery. This year, 103 students are enrolled in half-day classes.

School board Chairwoman Yvette Jacaruso agreed with Dolliver that expanding full-day kindergarten should be the top priority in Tuesday's final budget deliberations.

"Definitely, we have to have full-day kindergarten," Jacaruso said. "(The state) is talking about full-day preschool right now."

A second priority, Jacaruso said, should be adding world languages to the middle schools. She said Norwich is behind much smaller surrounding towns that offer foreign language programs, some starting in kindergarten.

Dolliver also hopes to find a way to expand library hours in the city's two middle schools. Currently, each library is open only half the week as the one media specialist splits time between the two schools.

Jacaruso said she is not optimistic about finding savings in the budget that wouldn't touch programming and staffing. The school system is self-insured, and it becomes risky to cut insurance allocations in the hopes of avoiding major illnesses in the coming year. The school system already underfunds maintenance and capital improvements.

"We've got to start doing something about our schools, repairing them," Jacaruso said. "They try to tell you to look forward and plan for 10 years down the road, and I can't even plan two weeks."

c.bessette@theday.com

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