Norwich school board to delay budget cuts until meeting with attorney

Norwich – The Board of Education on Monday found no acceptable way to cut $4 million from its 2018-19 budget to make up the gap between what the City Council approved last week and the $83 million that school officials maintain is the minimum it needs to run the district next year.

A last-minute savings in insurance cost brought the gap down from $4.6 million to about $4 million, School Business Administrator Athena Nagel told the board’s budget expenditure committee Monday. But board members silently rejected all the distasteful suggestions school administrators presented to absorb the $4 million.

With eight of the nine members of the board in attendance, the group also decided by consensus that the board would not adopt a final budget Tuesday night as originally scheduled. Instead, the board will hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 26, at Kelly Middle School that will start with an executive session with the board’s attorney, Anne Littlefield, to discuss legal options.

The board met with attorney Tom Mooney in early March after deciding to stick with its propose $83 million budget, a 9 percent increase over this year, even after Mayor Peter Nystrom and aldermen made public statements that the budget would never be approved. Board Chairwoman Yvette Jacaruso read a statement following that session saying the board could take the city to court if adequate funding was not provided.

The City Council last week approved a $78.4 million school budget, that calls for a 3 percent increase over this year’s $76.1 million total.

Superintendent Abby Dolliver and Nagel reviewed several possible ways to save some money in next year’s budget, all of them objectionable to the board members present. Dolliver said none of the proposals, which included extensive cuts to teaching and support positions, were recommended, but instead were “things we could do” to cut the budget.

Dolliver said it is impossible, for safety, to get to a $4 million cut.

In staffing terms, $4 million is the average salaries, minus unemployment costs of 34 certified teachers and 80 non-certified support staff -- $2 million for each category. And because the school system obtained federal grants to convert the two middle schools into magnet schools and preschool already is grant funded, the cuts would have to be borne by the seven elementary schools, Dolliver said.

Cutting that many positions would not be feasible, school officials said. But even cutting two classroom teachers from each of the seven elementary schools – 14 total – to save $800,000 would mean class sizes ranging from about 25 to 30 students. Some classrooms in older buildings are too small to accommodate large numbers, and the city fire marshal already has toured some schools to check on classroom capacity.

School officials calculated the cost of running the school system at $161,000 per day, including transportation to all the schools attended by Norwich students.

If the school system simply operated without making cuts, Dolliver said, “we would have to eliminate 25 days of school. Everything. After day 157, the district would close. Obviously, the state’s not allowing that. I’m just saying the $4 million is worth 25 actual school days, including a total shutdown of transportation to all schools.”

A salary freeze for all school employees would save $800,088, and would have to be negotiated with the school employee unions, with potential legal costs.

Because of the lack of available space, closing one or more school buildings would require going to double sessions in remaining buildings – with half the students  starting school in the early morning and the other half attending school late into the evening. That also would add transportation costs and would have to be negotiated with the unions, if the state would even allow it, Dolliver said.

Board member Robert Aldi suggested the board redirect special education students out of high-cost specialized programs into other lower-cost programs, or not pay the $2.5 million in support services Norwich pays to Norwich Free Academy on top of special education tuition.

But Dolliver, whose administrative background is in special education, said the district could not tell families that the appropriate program for their children is too expensive, and require them to attend a different program, or not provide the necessary support system.

“That’s the biggest illegal thing we could ever do,” Dolliver said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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