Partner school districts to discuss NFA issues looking ahead to future contract

Norwich - The eight partner school districts that have Norwich Free Academy as their designated high school are holding joint discussions on what they see as common issues they would like to see addressed in a future regional contract with the academy - including a cap on tuition increases and a longer- term contract.

Currently, all eight towns sign individual contracts with NFA as their designated high school. Norwich's contract with NFA expires in 2016, but the Norwich board is supposed to alert NFA two years ahead of time if it wishes to renew that contract.

NFA sent a proposed new five-year "master agreement" to all eight towns in May that includes a tuition cap "for the first time ever," NFA board of trustees Chairman Theodore Phillips said Tuesday in a written statement in response to questions from The Day about the contract discussions.

The proposed contract also triggers communications with partner districts before a tuition increase is reached.

"History indicates that the cap has not been met in the past, nor is it likely to be reached, in the foreseeable future," Phillips said.

He said the deadline for towns to provide feedback was July 15. Some towns requested an extension of the deadline. The earliest the contract could take effect is next July.

"Whether the towns choose to comment as a group or individually, either is acceptable to the academy," Phillips said.

The Norwich Board of Education Tuesday named board Chairwoman Yvette Jacaruso as its designee for the joint meetings. If Jacaruso cannot attend, the board will appoint an alternate.

Board attorney Saranne Murray outlined several issues the partner district towns would like to see included in the discussions, including a cap on annual tuition increases, a longer contract duration, establishing the school calendar in a timely manner and setting the annual tuition rate by a set date to allow boards to work on their budgets.

The group also would like better communication from NFA regarding student progress and whether special education students are struggling academically or with behavior issues to discuss possible alternative placements.

"There's a lot of solidarity on the part of the sending districts on these issues," Murray said.

More issues could be added to the discussion as they arise, Murray said. The meetings will be posted and open to the public at this point, and the towns hope the NFA board of trustees sends a representative as well. Lisbon Board of Education Chairman Randy Baah is chairing the sessions.

Eventually, the talks could turn into more formal negotiations, Jacaruso said.

Preston Board of Education Chairwoman Jan Clancy attended one recent joint meeting of the partner towns and will attend future meetings. Clancy said the group is cordial and members are just trying to protect the interests of their towns.

"None of the representatives of the meeting have any argument with NFA about the education," Clancy said. "Everybody really appreciates the education provided at NFA."

Clancy said Preston doesn't have any "hot, bubbling" issues with NFA on these or other contract issues. She said Preston would have signed the new contract without the discussions. The town's board now will wait to see what the talks produce.

"We would have gone without fighting," Clancy said. "One thing that would help us is getting the tuition rate earlier. And go to a state calendar."

Norwich, by far the largest of the partner districts, has complained about NFA tuition hikes, high special education costs and the requirement that the city pay for special education support services in addition to special education tuition. The issue has become contentious, because in recent years the Norwich City Council has approved only slight or no increases to the annual school budgets, forcing cuts to the lower-level schools to absorb the NFA increases.

Jacaruso told the Norwich board that she would report back to the full board on the issues discussed. Any contract between Norwich and NFA would have to be approved by the full Board of Education.

"We are very proud of our history of providing excellent educational opportunities to our students at per pupil costs that are favorably comparable to each town's costs per pupil for kindergarten through eighth grade," Phillips said in the statement, "and we expect to offer that same value to the towns for years to come."
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