Norwich school budget increase projected at 11% next year; $1.1 million deficit this year

Norwich — There wasn’t much good news at Wednesday’s school board budget committee meeting, attended by three aldermen, as the current year deficit is projected at $1.1 million, and the worst-case scenario projection for the 2020-21 budget calls for an 11% spending increase.

Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow cautioned that next year’s projection included the worst-case special education tuition and enrollment projections for Norwich Free Academy, contributing to a projected $3 million total tuition increase next year. But once the actual breakdown of special education placements in various NFA programs is done, that projection should come down, she said.

The projected total budget for next year is $90.4 million, a $9.3 million or 11.5% increase over the current year’s $81 million approved budget.

But after the City Council approved the current budget last June, $2.2 million lower than the Board of Education requested, the school board refused to make the cuts, deciding to try to cut expenses as much as possible throughout the year.

The latest projected deficit for this year is $1.1 million, School Business Administrator Athena Nagel told the board, but that still is fluctuating. Several line items are driving the deficit, she said.

Noncertified staff salaries have a $241,067 projected deficit, attributed to overtime needed to integrate a major new financial software system that will be in synch with the city government system. Special education transportation, a perennial costly and unpredictable item, Nagel said, is projected at a $442,595 deficit, and regular education transportation is showing a $348,239 deficit.

Next year’s budget includes projected increases of $1 million in certified salaries, $1.1 million in noncertified salaries and another $1.1 million in health insurance costs.

In next year’s proposed budget, Stringfellow, in her first year as Norwich superintendent, hopes to start a three-year plan to bring more certified teachers into the school system as noncertified staff retire or resign. She said the moves should be budget-neutral but bring in highly qualified, certified teachers.

“One third of our staff are teachers,” Stringfellow wrote in the budget presentation. “Typically, in school departments (particularly high performing school departments) 80-90 percent of staff are teachers.”

Stringfellow also is trying to solidify schedules for student enrollment in various high schools, placements in special education programs and schools of choice to allow for improved budget setting.

The district is not expected to lose any major grants for next year but hasn’t heard yet from the state on some major entitlement grants for next year.

Administrators provided the board with detailed reports on staffing, grants, special education and the district’s 617 English Language Learners, students who arrived speaking little or no English. Stringfellow said Norwich has had difficulty finding qualified English teachers for those students, failing to meet state bilingual teaching requirements in several categories and having high student caseloads for the teachers on staff.

“We do the best we can,” she said.

Eight of the nine Board of Education members attended Wednesday’s meeting, so when the final proposed budget is presented to the full board March 10, there should be few surprises. The board’s budget committee will meet again next week to finalize the budget proposal, and the new City Council/Board of Education Ad Hoc Committee will meet for the first time March 6.

c.bessette@theday.com

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