Speakers tell Norwich City Council to support school, recreation funding

Norwich — Several speakers on Thursday urged the City Council to support school funding and recreation staffing and programs to ensure the city is providing for the needs of city youth.

The City Council held the first public hearing on City Manager John Salomone’s proposed $128.9 million 2019-20 combined school and city budget. But with a proposed slight decrease in the tax rate for next year, the hearing drew sparse participation, with Mayor Peter Nystrom calling out several times for speakers before closing the hearing after about 15 minutes.

Board of Education member Mark Kulos urged the council to support the school board’s original proposed $83.3 million budget, rather than Salomone’s recommended $80 million, 2 percent increase, budget. Kulos said funding education “is among the legal, moral and ethical responsibilities” of city government.

Stacy Weckwerth, parent of a second-grader and an incoming kindergartner at the Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet School, said her daughter came home from school one day recently and said her class could not finish an art project, because they ran out of markers.

The current $78.46 million school budget is projected to finish the year with a $2.4 million deficit. The school board entered the year expecting a $4 million deficit and cut the red ink by enacting an immediate spending freeze and working with unionized staff for more than $1 million in savings through a high-deductible health insurance plan.

“I thought it can’t really be that bad,” Weckwerth said of her daughter’s class running out of markers, “but I know it is that bad, because I’m in the school often enough to see it.”

She urged aldermen to spend time in the city’s schools to see for themselves how spending decisions made at City Hall affect school children. She said they would see that the schools are understaffed and underfunded.

Paul Bazzinet, president of the Norwich Police Athletic League, and PAL member Joseph Cote expressed concern that the council might be cutting the city’s already underfunded recreation department. Cote said the city needs recreation funding because it does not have a YMCA, and the recreation department budget is small in comparison to many higher-cost items.

Bazzinet said he was concerned that the city might be considering reducing Recreation Director Cheryl Hancin-Preston’s position to part-time. He praised her work and the work of the department’s maintenance staff in caring for city fields. The city went without a recreation director for three years before Hancin-Preston was hired, first at first part-time, then boosted to full-time.

Salomone’s proposed budget, however, lists a cut from one full-time position to a 0.89 director position, but at the same salary of $88,179. After the hearing, Salomone said the position would remain full-time, and the 0.89 was an error in the budget document.

c.bessette@theday.com

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