Norwich school board approves $83.3 million proposed budget

Norwich — The Board of Education Tuesday approved a proposed $83.3 million 2019-20 city education budget very similar to the budget backed by the board a year ago, which was then cut by nearly $4.6 million by the City Council last June.

The current budget, $78.46 million, is a projected $2.47 million in the red, a deficit that school officials said was unavoidable with the cuts ordered by the City Council last June. After the council cut last year, the school board adopted the new total but warned the budget would end with a deficit.

The new proposed 2019-20 budget calls for a $4.8 million spending increase over the $78.46 million current budget but is “almost exactly” what the board requested a year ago, Superintendent Abby Dolliver said Tuesday.

“Let’s just say we got what we needed last year,” Dolliver told the board Tuesday. “This would be an almost no-increase budget. ... We’re really holding tight on expenses for reasons you all know.”

The board’s budget expenditure committee reviewed the proposed budget in detail Feb. 21, and seven of the nine board members attended. Board member Dennis Slopak said there was little more to say, and member Robert Aldi called for a vote with little discussion Tuesday. The seven members attending Tuesday’s meeting approved the budget unanimously.

“You have been fiscally responsible throughout the whole year,” Aldi said to Dolliver. “This budget you are presenting is fiscally responsible.”

In the proposed budget, certified salaries would drop by a projected $338,273, but support salaries would increase by nearly $600,000. The budget adds 13 para-educators who were hired this year to help alleviate high class sizes in some grades, School Business Administrator Athena Nagel said. Their salaries were covered this year through savings in the salary account gained by shifting other positions to grants.

In next year’s proposed budget, the 13 para-educators were placed in the support salaries account, causing the projected increase.

The budget includes an increase in capital costs to pay for much-needed repairs to an aging portable classroom used for special-needs students at the John B. Stanton School and to purchase a used plow truck for the Veterans’ Memorial School and a new vehicle for school maintenance staff to use districtwide. Nagel said the current 7-year-old maintenance vehicle has nearly 200,000 miles.

School administrators have grappled with the projected deficit for this year since the budget was adopted last June. The school system saved about $1 million by shifting health insurance coverage to a plan with high-deductible premiums.

A freeze was placed immediately on all discretionary spending, and schools have resorted to swapping supplies, including toilet paper and other paper goods, as one building runs out of something another might have in stock.

“Whatever’s in your closets, you need to share,” Dolliver said of the message relayed to all schools.

But Nagel said the ability to cut costs further is dwindling.

Assistant Superintendent Thomas Baird said the board can thank the teachers for helping to cut the deficit this year by agreeing to convert to a high-deductible insurance plan.

Baird said additional money was saved by hiring behavioral specialists who worked with special-education students within the district to cut down on costly placements to outside specialized programs. Out-of-district placements were reduced from 20 elementary students last year to just two this year, Baird said.

“That’s a huge savings in out-placement special education tuition,” he said.

The board will submit its proposed total budget to City Manager John Salomone, who will present his proposed budget, including a bottom-line total for the school budget, to the City Council on April 1. The school board will explain its budget to the council on April 4, and the first public hearing on school and city budgets is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 11, at City Hall.

Alderwoman Stacy Gould, the council’s liaison to the school board, has attended the budget committee meetings and the board’s budget vote Tuesday.

“I don’t know if the taxpayers can afford that increase,” Gould said of the $4.8 million proposed increase over this year’s approved budget. “They couldn’t afford it last year, and I don’t think they can afford it this year, but we’ll see what the (City Council) has to say.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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