Norwich school board adopts budget, but not cuts

Norwich — For the second straight year, the Board of Education adopted a budget below the amount it had sought.

The board on Tuesday adopted the $81.03 million 2019-20 budget handed it by the City Council but did not specify where it would make up the $2.2 million gap between that total and the $83.3 million requested.

The school board also had a new wrinkle to consider Tuesday, after learning that the state would allow Norwich to use Alliance District school improvement funds to pay for high school tuition.

Retiring Superintendent Abby Dolliver — it was her final regular board meeting — told the board that while such funds normally cannot be used to offset operational costs, Norwich will be allowed to use an unspecified amount from the anticipated $5.59 million Alliance District grant to cover some of the $34.1 million in 2019-20 tuition costs.

Dolliver was not pleased with the new provision, saying it would amount to another taking from the lower grades to cover the tuition costs for high school.

Assistant Superintendent Thomas Baird presented a proposed budget for the entire $5.59 million Alliance District grant, without removing any amount for high school tuition. The proposed budget includes 59.4 staff positions for teachers, paraeducators, behavioral and instructional specialists and after-school program staff, curriculum materials, technology and library materials.

The Board of Education voted 8-1 to keep Baird’s proposed Alliance District plan intact, rejecting the proposal to reduce a portion of it to pay for high school tuition. Republican Aaron “Al” Daniels cast the lone dissenting vote.

“We don’t want to take from our Alliance grants, because we are in effect reducing our kids’ education,” board member Robert Aldi said.

On the overall budget, the City Council approved a school budget Monday totaling $81,039,000 after adding $1 million to the total City Manager John Salomone had proposed. But that still was $2,265,337 less than the $83.3 million the Board of Education had requested in March.

The board nominally adopted the City Council’s allocated budget in a 7-2 vote and left it undecided how to incorporate the shortfall going forward. Aldi and board member Dennis Slopak voted against the budget. School administrators were instructed to cut where possible and end next fiscal year as close to the $81.03 million as possible.

Faced with a similar situation last year, the board refused to make cuts that would reduce teachers, increase class sizes and slash programs. Instead, the school system enacted spending freezes on nearly all purchases and reached an agreement with unions to cut more than $1 million from health insurance costs. The efforts cut the projected deficit from $4.5 million to an estimated $1.9 million, nearly all in special education costs. The board will present the final deficit to the City Council in August.

School Business Administrator Athena Nagel told the board Tuesday she reduced part of the shortfall this year by stopping funding workers’ compensation insurance obligations, necessitating a $75,000 increase in that account next year.

Nagel and Baird said the spending freeze this year has meant purchasing only emergency needs. Teachers have been buying their own classroom supplies, and the school district received donations of computers and furniture from local businesses.

Nagel said next year, even starting the year with a spending freeze is not expected to yield major savings.

“How do you sustain a freeze, on and on and on?” board member Joyce Werden said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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