Norwich school officials explain school budget in public forum

Norwich — Questions were posed to city school officials Tuesday about the projected $2.4 million budget deficit for this year, the requested $83 million for next year and what they would do if the board again must make deep cuts.

The budget public forum, attended by about 15 people in person and more through Facebook Live, came one day after a heated debate by the City Council ended with a 4-3 vote against adding $2.9 million to the city manager’s proposed $80.04 million school budget for next year.

The current school budget of $78.46 million, originally $4 million below the school board’s request, is expected to end the year with a $2.4 million deficit.

Echoing a claim by Mayor Peter Nystrom on Monday night that the board intentionally overspent its allocation from the City Council last year, a Facebook participant asked: “Why did you ignore the city allocation?”

Superintendent Abby Dolliver said the board did not ignore the allocation. The board had submitted a budget with only increases to cover mandated costs, such as high school tuition, special education and contracts. School officials have shaved $2 million from that total, but still face cost increases.

“We didn’t intentionally overbudget,” Dolliver said.

Dolliver told the audience Tuesday that adding the deficit to the budget essentially means City Manager John Salomone’s proposed 2 percent increase to $80.04 million is “flat funded.” The $83 million request would be a 3 percent spending increase.

Because the board started the current fiscal year with the projected deficit, all discretionary spending was frozen and supplies are running low now.

Dime Bank donated computers, servers and even chairs for teachers’ desks, school Business Administrator Athena Nagel said, to replace some that were "falling apart."

Teachers agreed to convert to a high-deductible health insurance program that cut $1 million from the deficit.

The school system relies heavily on grants to fund nearly half of staff salaries, all technology equipment, some supplies and out-of-classroom programs.

Asked what the board would do if the council again provides less than the board’s request — “what we absolutely need,” Dolliver insisted — Dolliver said the board would face that question again. The school district cannot default on special education and high school tuitions, Assistant Superintendent Thomas Baird said.

“We could not eliminate enough classroom staff to meet the budget cuts and open schools,” Dolliver said.

In past years, the school system closed three elementary schools when faced with budget cuts. But Dolliver said the city fire marshal has walked through the buildings and warned that some classrooms have reached capacity, to the point of asking if books were necessary in the room.

Dolliver, who will retire at the end of June, speculated that the Board of Education would not make decisions that would place students in unsafe conditions.

School officials have stressed the need to upgrade the city’s aging school buildings, expand some schools to consolidate and close buildings to save money. But a plan approved by the board two years ago was scrapped by the City Council without going to voters.

A new School Facilities Committee has been studying the issue again but announced in February that it would not be ready to seek a referendum this fall. Dolliver told the audience Tuesday that, given the current schedule, no new construction could begin until 2022 at the earliest and only if the City Council agrees to go forward with a proposal.


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