Norwich 2018-19 school budget ended with $1.4 million deficit

Norwich — Savings from the warm, relatively dry winter helped give the city $1.1 million in savings in the fiscal year that just ended, but cost overruns in three areas, led by the $1.4 million school budget deficit, will erase that surplus and require the city to dip into its surplus fund to balance the books for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Comptroller Josh Pothier on Monday will present to the City Council details of the final budget transfers needed.

School officials had warned throughout the year that the school budget would end with a significant deficit, but a spending freeze and lower than expected special education costs dropped the initial projected deficit of $4.6 million last summer down to the final figure of $1.4 million.

School Business Administrator Athena Nagel said part of the reduction in the deficit was achieved by putting off maintenance, repairs and classroom purchases — some delayed as long as two to three years. It’s a practice that can’t continue, she said.

The 2019-20 school budget approved by the City Council in June is $2.26 million short of what the Board of Education said it needed to keep current programs and staffing. The board refused to make specific cuts and will try again to incorporate savings where possible throughout the school year.

“It’s not that we don’t need it,” Nagel said of last year’s reduced deficit. “It’s that we have been postponing things we do need. And we have recouped as many things as we could, and there are not available areas to recoup any more in 2019-20. We can’t go two years with teachers not getting supplies and expect them to go a third year without getting supplies.”

New Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow did not attend Tuesday’s special board meeting due to a family emergency. Stringfellow, who started July 1, has spent her first six weeks meeting with numerous school and city leaders and has named budget issues a top priority.

Mayor Peter Nystrom, who attended the school board meeting Tuesday, said he has met with Stringfellow once and plans monthly meetings starting Aug. 21 and throughout the year with the superintendent.

Nystrom said he is not pleased about any city department that ends with a budget deficit but was grateful for the surpluses several departments were able to provide.

According to a resolution to be considered by the City Council on Monday, the $1.4 million school budget deficit topped the list of shortfalls. But the police department also ended the year with a deficit of $560,000 due to payouts to five officers who retired, overtime and overtime replacement costs to cover for vacations and officers out sick.

The city’s legal costs also ended the year with a $40,000 deficit, due in part to a number of building condemnations and mandated relocation costs not yet recouped, Pothier reported.

On the surplus side, the Public Works Department ended the year with a $410,000 surplus, thanks to the mild winter. Several other city departments returned funds, ranging from $461,000 from the city contingency fund to $3,000 from the city manager’s budget.

Combined, the surpluses totaled $1,172,000 and will be used to cover the entire law and police budget deficits and $572,000 of the school budget deficit, according to the proposed transfer resolution on Monday’s council agenda.

The remaining $828,000 in the school budget deficit would have to be covered through a proposed ordinance to take the money out of the general fund surplus, Pothier wrote in his report. That would leave the general fund surplus at 11.3 percent of the city’s total budget of $126 million for 2018-19, within the target range of 10 to 17 percent, Pothier reported.

The city’s paid fire department, funded by the central city fire tax separately from the general fund, also ended the year with a $420,000 deficit due to overtime costs, Pothier reported. That deficit would be covered in a proposed ordinance taking the money from the surplus for the paid fire district, which would be reduced to just 2.8 percent of its $7.5 million budget.

Pothier said a plan to replenish the fire district surplus fund would be proposed as part of the 2020-21 budget process next spring.

c.bessette@theday.com

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