More Norwich school disruption a mistake
The Norwich Public Schools are a system in crisis.
Year after year the administration and Board of Education scramble to try to figure out how to stretch available dollars and still maintain educational quality. To some degree, many school systems face this challenge. But Norwich faces special circumstances that threaten to make this a losing battle.
Meanwhile, the Norwich City Council, under control of Republicans who pledged when they first grabbed control in 2015 to provide relief to the city's beleaguered taxpayers, have made it clear they won’t accept big spending increases.
Kids and parents are getting squeezed between these competing interests.
Superintendent Abby Dolliver has presented the school board a proposed budget of $82.2 million for the next school year, a $6 million or 8 percent increase. That sounds like a lot, but it could be worse. In presenting the budget, Dolliver found $800,000 in savings by proposing a revamping of six of the of the city’s seven neighborhood elementary schools.
In a couple of meetings since, parents have made it clear they don’t like it.
The plan pairs Wequonnoc and Veterans’ Memorial schools, with Wequonnoc taking students kindergarten through second grade and Veterans children from third grade to fifth. The Thomas Mahan and Uncas schools, and the Samuel Huntington and John B. Stanton schools would likewise be paired, each broken into K-2 for one school, 3-5 for the other.
The resulting reorganization, said the superintendent, would equalize class sizes, improve demographic diversity in the schools and trim 11 classroom teachers, resulting in much of the savings.
Parents told the school board it would also spread their young children among multiple schools, eliminate the stability that comes with a student passing several years through a single elementary school, and would run counter to the district's efforts to encourage parental engagement with their neighborhood schools.
More troubling, such disruption has become the norm as the school board keeps adjusting to find savings. A few years back the city closed three elementary schools. Three years ago it moved all sixth-graders into Teachers’ Memorial, formerly a middle school, and all seventh- and eighth-graders to Kelly Middle School.
Next year the two schools return to sixth-through-eighth formats, using a federal magnet school grant.
Lacking is a comprehensive educational vision of what is best for student achievement and how the school system should be structured to meet the challenges this demographically diverse, village-oriented city presents.
A year ago the Board of Education was pursuing a plan to renovate as new four of the city’s aging elementary schools and close three others. Closing schools is never popular and the City Council opted to kill the plan.
Mayor Peter A. Nystrom has pledged to form a new committee to consider what a future Norwich school system should look like. It needs to be a diverse group and Nystrom must be prepared to have its collective back when tough choices have to be made.
As for difficult challenges confronting the district, one-third of the education budget provides for the needs of special education students. Making this burden greater is the state’s failure to meet its statutory pledge to fully fund excessively high costs for those special education students with acute needs.
About $4.4 million of the increase is to pay tuition, as students have migrated to out-of-district magnet schools. The public school system also pays the tuition of students attending Norwich Free Academy, which serves as the city's high school, but the school board has no control over NFA spending. The academy’s board is internally appointed, not elected.
Norwich has a high transient population, with an annual student turnover rate as much as 30 percent, Dolliver said. For about 600 of the 3,540 students, English is their second language.
Norwich should work to avoid reorganizing and disrupting the elementary schools and await the recommendations of a new committee, even if it means tolerating a substantial budgetary increase.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.
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