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Norwich school board to discuss $5 million budget hole next week

Norwich — First-year school Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow on Tuesday listed many budget choices that struggling school districts typically turn to for cuts in difficult budget years, but she told the Board of Education that Norwich has already made those cuts and more over the past 11 years.

Closing schools, combining classes, cutting staff, eliminating sports, music, library programs, after-school programs, and asking staff for wage freezes and to pay higher shares of health insurance coverage all have been done in Norwich, Stringfellow said. In most school districts, she said, certified teachers’ salaries make up 50% to 55% of the school budget, while in Norwich, they total 22% of the total budget.

“I’ve done budget reduction plans for more than 22 years,” she said. “It’s not easy, but it’s possible when you have excess buildings or excess staff and your enrollment is decreasing.”

None of those conditions are the case in Norwich. The board has closed three elementary schools in the past decade — Greeneville, William A. Buckingham and Bishop schools — and combined classes. She said the district needs the paraeducators in the budget, because of crowded classrooms, special education and supports for English learners.

Some library and music programs have been restored in recent years, and Stringfellow has proposed bringing back middle school sports at a small cost in next year’s budget.

She said combining classes would be physically impossible, because class sizes already are high and with social distancing expected to be incorporated in any return to school, many classrooms are too small already.

Stringfellow initially proposed a budget of $88.4 million, a 9.11% increase to cover all expenses and not finish the year in a deficit. Knowing that would be unacceptable, the Board of Education in March approved a budget totaling $85.4 million, a 5.5% increase but still with a projected deficit.

City Manager John Salomone recommended a 2.4% school budget increase to $83 million. But the current $81.03 million budget is expected to finish the year with a $1.1 million deficit. Stringfellow told the board nearly every fixed cost in the 2020-21 budget is rising by more than 2.4%.

Some savings will be realized with the buildings closed during the coronavirus state-mandated shutdown, school Business Administrator Athena Nagel told the board, but while that will cut the deficit, there also will be added expenses.

Board member Christine DiStasio asked about possible furlough days or salary freezes to cut the budget. Nagel said any salary concessions would have to be negotiated with the district’s labor unions. Furlough days would be more difficult, because the school system must meet the minimum 180 education days.

Board member Aaron “Al” Daniels suggested the board start with the 7% of the overall budget that does not represent fixed costs and any new spending Stringfellow has proposed.

The board scheduled a special meeting of the Budget Expenditure Committee for 6 p.m. Tuesday to make recommendations on how to cut the budget. Those proposals will be presented to the next ad hoc joint committee of school board and City Council members scheduled for May 21.

c.bessette@theday.com

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