Fiscal twilight zone continues for Norwich schools
Norwich City Council and Board of Education votes this month make clear that neither side has learned much nor budged from the hopelessly deadlocked positions that left the schools and the city’s taxpayers in a precarious situation in the current fiscal year.
The votes by council and school board bake in a school budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The votes assure the deficit once again will be balanced via further depletion of the city’s fund balance. This is despite knowledge a dwindling fund balance can adversely impact the city’s bond rating and make it more difficult to react to financial emergencies.
City taxpayers and, most assuredly, schoolchildren and their families, deserve much better from their local officials. How to resolve this continued impasse should be front and center in the 2019 city elections, at least for those who bother to vote, which history unfortunately suggests won't be many.
Earlier this month, the Republican-majority City Council that is striving to hold the line on taxes, approved a $129.9 million combined city-school budget in a 4-3 vote divided along party lines. The council rejected attempts by individual aldermen to boost the education budget by $3 million and $1.5 million, respectively, but finally approved in a 5-2 vote a proposal to add $1 million. Republican Alderman William Nash made that proposal. He deserves credit for trying to find some middle ground. The final approved school budget now stands at $81.03 million.
The night after the council vote, the Board of Education adopted the school budget without specifying how it would strive to make up the $2.2 million gap between the approved amount and the $83.3 million spending plan it requested. It is the second year the board adopted a budget that failed to acknowledge council cuts in its request.
There is no doubt the city’s budget fight has turned ugly and uncivil as both sides dig into their respective positions. Democrats on the council called the approved budget “dishonest,” and “flawed.” Alderwoman Joanne Philbrick has called today’s education system “taxpayer funded daycare,” and Mayor Peter Nystrom accused school officials of purposely over-spending the current budget.
The Democratically controlled school board this year realized some savings by instituting a high-deductible health insurance plan and enacting spending freezes where possible. But it has said fixed costs associated with special education, transportation and Norwich Free Academy tuition − that institution serves as the city's high school but the school board has no control over its budget − make it impossible to further reduce spending. Veteran Superintendent Abby Dolliver’s pending retirement further complicates the situation as a new superintendent will soon take the reins.
We acknowledge that both sides make some valid points in this seemingly no-win budget debate. The council is particularly sensitive to the point that Norwich taxpayers carry a steep property tax burden, especially in the center city district. This makes it difficult to attract buyers for properties in a city desperate for an infusion of new energy and homeowners willing to revitalize blighted housing. On the other hand, the school board needs a realistic spending plan with which to operate. Poor schools certainly won't help attract new families and boost home values. The Board of Education can’t be expected to freeze spending indefinitely. The city’s schoolchildren deserve a solid education that will enable them to compete for college acceptance or future careers.
The City Council and the Board of Education must find a way to come together on the budget and both groups should return to the table to work out a realistic budget solution. Officials must stop the snarky, insulting remarks that may play well on social media, but fail to meaningfully serve city residents.
These officials should be motivated to work toward an acceptable budget compromise because it’s their sworn responsibility to do so. If they aren’t, however, they must remember their fate is in the voters’ hands in November.
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 Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. 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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