Norwich school restructuring plan criticized
Norwich — Nine parents and one student pleaded Tuesday night with the Board of Education to find a way to save $800,000 without restructuring six city elementary schools by grade level, forcing young siblings to ride different buses and parents to shuffle multiple school schedules and activities.
The issue sparked a heated debate, as board members tried to grasp early budget projections that show an 8 percent spending increase next year to $82 million.
“I would like to finish my school as a Stanton Shark,” Ryan Van Lew, a fourth-grader at the John B. Stanton School told the board during public comment at the start of the meeting.
The restructuring plan was unveiled last week in response to a preliminary budget increase of nearly 11 percent. The plan would pair Stanton with the Samuel Huntington School, with students in kindergarten through second grade attending Stanton and third- to fifth-graders attending Huntington. Uncas and Thomas Mahan schools would be paired, and Veterans’ Memorial and Wequonnoc schools would be paired.
The changes would save an estimated $800,000 by cutting 11 teaching positions.
Only the John Moriarty School, an environmental sciences magnet school, would be unaffected by the changes — an exemption questioned by parents of students in the affected schools.
Several parents became emotional when defending the current kindergarten-through-fifth-grade schools, calling the proposed restructuring disruptive to both students and parents. Larger class sizes would be detrimental to learning, and longer bus rides unacceptable for young children, they said.
Alyssa Pendleton, a teacher at Norwich Free Academy and parent of two children who will be in kindergarten and first grade next year, said she has read “more bad than good” about the proposed restructuring, citing the longer bus rides, splitting siblings and disruption of parents’ schedules. She also would miss the mentoring that fifth grade “reading buddies” provide to kindergartners at Huntington.
She said this year’s first graders will be the most affected, with many of them switching schools next year, only to return to their original school the year after as third-graders. She also objected to projected class sizes of 25 students in the restructured schools.
Parent Sean Langlais urged the board to “find a way to get the money.”
Crystal Janelle, a parent of two current Huntington students and a third scheduled to attend Huntington next year, expressed frustration that the restructuring issue is back on the table after the City Council last year rejected a proposed renovation and school consolidation project that included possible restructuring of the elementary schools by grade level.
Janelle said that with the restructuring, she’ll have children in three different Norwich schools.
“I’m active in the PTO now,” Janelle said. “You’re going to want me to be active in three schools?”
During the board’s budget discussion, Republican Dennis Slopak objected to cutting any classroom teachers and increasing class sizes to an estimated 25 students. He also objected to the last-minute crisis nature of the proposal. Slopak said the board never has time to study budget issues and do long-term planning.
Republican Patricia Staley questioned transportation consequences. With staggered bus times for each school level — one run for lower grades, one for higher elementary grades and a third for middle school students — parents’ work schedules would be disrupted, too.
“There are other alternatives,” Slopak said.
“Not for this kind of money,” Superintendent Abby Dolliver responded.
School Business Administrator Athena Nagel said the real projected budget increase is $8 million, and there are no big-ticket items to save that much.
“Everyone is focusing on $800,000,” Nagel said, “but we need $8 million.”
“We might as well be eight million, eight hundred thousand in the hole,” Slopak responded.
Slopak suggested adopting a responsible budget that meets students’ needs, and put the onus on the City Council to provide adequate funding.
The board will hold a public hearing on the budget at 6 p.m. Feb. 21 in the Kelly Middle School auditorium, and the board’s budget expenditure committee will meet at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 27 and March 6 at Kelly Middle School. Both sessions will be open to the public.