Norwich elementary schools to be restructured in cost-cutting plan

Norwich — Faced with a projected 11 percent budget increase next year, school administrators are proposing to restructure six elementary schools by grade level to save $800,000 and cut 11 classroom teacher positions.

Even with the drastic restructuring plan, the projected budget would total $82.375 million — a $6.1 million, 8.1 percent increase over this year’s total of $76.1 million. Without the projected $800,000 savings in the restructuring plan, the total budget would have had an 11.1 percent spending increase.

The last-minute restructuring plan, devised Wednesday and released Thursday evening, comes several months after the City Council rejected a proposed school renovation plan that also explored the possibility of restructuring elementary schools by grade level. The new plan, however, does not eliminate any school buildings — which would need extensive renovations and expansion of remaining buildings, Superintendent Abby Dolliver said — but instead creates three pairs of “attendance zone” schools divided by grade level.

In the plan, the Thomas Mahan and Uncas elementary schools would be paired, with Mahan taking all kindergarten through second-graders from the two districts, and Uncas taking students in grades three through five. Average class sizes would be 24.2 students and would require 22 classroom teachers, a drop of three teachers from current numbers. Projected savings would be $240,000.

The Samuel Huntington and John B. Stanton schools would be paired, with kindergarten through second-graders attending Stanton, and third- through fifth-graders going to Huntington. Class sizes would average 21.2 students, needing 30 teachers, a reduction of four teachers. This combination would save $320,000.

The final pairing of Wequonnoc and Veterans’ Memorial schools was described by school Curriculum Director Thomas Baird as a little more “out of the box,” because the schools are not in adjacent neighborhoods. Kindergarten through second-graders would attend Veterans’ school, and third- through fifth-graders would attend Wequonnoc. The number of classroom teachers would drop from 28 to 24 to save $320,000.

The classroom teacher reductions would save $760,000 combined out of the taxpayer portion of the budget, with another $120,000 in savings from grants that cover some positions. The grant money saved would be used for other purposes allowed in the grant, school Business Administrator Athena Nagel said.

The John Moriarty School, an environmental science magnet school, would remain unchanged. Wequonnoc is an arts and technology magnet school, and that theme would be extended to Veterans’ school, Dolliver said.

State law prohibits younger grade students from attending classes on upper stories, so the lower grades in the reconfiguration plan had to be placed in single-story schools — Stanton, Veterans and Mahan.

Dolliver said the plan came together during the snow day Wednesday, when administrators met to tackle the ballooning budget, with a $2.8 million tuition jump for regular and special education, a $1.6 million salaries increase and a $400,000 transportation cost increase. State special education reimbursements are expected to drop, and special education enrollment is expected to rise, Dolliver said.

Dolliver said she called each school principal and met with Board of Education Chairwoman Yvette Jacaruso and Vice Chairwoman Joyce Werden and spread the word to other board members that the plan would be explained at Thursday evening’s budget committee meeting.

The full Board of Education will discuss the issue at its 5:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday at Kelly Middle School, and will vote on a final proposed budget March 13.

A budget public hearing is planned for 6 p.m. Feb. 21 at Kelly and Budget Expenditure Committee meetings, which also are open to the public, are scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 27 and March 6, both at Kelly.

Dolliver said she invited staff to suggest other budget savings, and one staff member suggested going to a four-day school week. But school officials said that would not meet the state mandated minimum 180 days of school, and wouldn’t save much on transportation, because Norwich buses would have to transport students to high schools, charter and some magnet schools on the fifth day.

“The board has to decide what they want to do,” Dolliver said. “If you have ideas, bring them forward. There’s no one thing that can save six or five or four million dollars.”

Mayor Peter Nystrom, Alderwoman Stacy Gould, who attended Thursday's school budget meeting, and school board chairwoman Jacaruso all said Friday that an 8 percent, $6.1 million school budget increase is unacceptable. All stressed the numbers are preliminary, "the first bite at the apple," Gould said.

"Special ed programs are breaking the bank," Jacaruso said. "We’re doing the best we can, and we have to figure out how we’re going to do this. I want it to be fair, too. We have to find a way to make it fair to the taxpayers and fair to the kids."

In his State of the City address Jan. 2, Nystrom pledged to create a new school renovation committee to again consider possible consolidations, much-needed renovations and cost-saving efficiencies. Nystrom said he will meet with Dolliver on Wednesday to review a list of potential candidates for the committee.

Nystrom hopes a school renovation/consolidation committee can be established by City Council resolution within a few weeks, but couldn't predict whether any proposal would be ready in time to place it on the November ballot for a referendum.

c.bessette@theday.com

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