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Proposed Norwich school budget cuts go deep

Norwich — Options to cut $2.9 million from the proposed school budget unveiled by Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow on Tuesday include eliminating magnet elementary school themes, cutting about 50 support staff positions, closing one preschool and eliminating nonmandated programs from the second preschool.

Those cuts would only reduce the budget to $85.49 million, the 5.5% increase over this year's spending the Board of Education approved in March. To get to City Manager John Salomone’s proposed $83 million, 2.4% increase, the district would need to close an elementary school and find an undefined $2 million more to cut.

Stringfellow presented the proposal during the Board of Education Budget Expenditure Committee virtual meeting Tuesday night. More than 30 people, including school board, City Council members, school officials and the public, attended the meeting.

“The Norwich Public Schools are at minimum staffing levels,” Stringfellow cautioned in a preface on the slideshow presentation. “The following budget reduction options would place us at far less than minimum staffing. The impact to the educational program would be drastic. Anyone who has walked the halls of our schools knows that our staffing, supplies and resources are already limited, and our needs are great.”

She said the district needs the budgeted three new reading teachers — Norwich has no reading teachers and improving reading test scores is a priority — and a new assistant special education director. The $143,000 position in salary and benefits is expected to pay for itself by reducing costly out-of-district special education placements. To cover the added costs for those positions, she proposed eliminating nine noncertified positions.

The biggest cut, $1.5 million, would be made by eliminating 39 noncertified staff, including English language paraeducators, school secretary and custodial support staff and other paraeducators. Eliminating school nurses, leaving just one school nurse per building, would save $100,000.

Under the heading "Disadvantages," Stringfellow wrote: “We would be causing broad district employee unemployment of Norwich taxpayers. It will restrict community events at schools, because of lack of custodial coverage. Students and staff will not get the support they need.”

The current intradistrict magnet elementary schools, the Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet School and Wequonnoc Arts and Technology Magnet School were created through federal grants. The grants have ended, and the district would save $400,000 in transportation costs by eliminating the themes and sending students to their neighborhood schools.

“They chose these schools and believe in the theme and believe in the programming,” Stringfellow wrote in the proposal. “This move will displace students from schools they have attended for many years.”

She said she could find no way to cut $5.4 million to get down to the 2.4% increase proposed by Salomone. Closing an unidentified elementary school would save $500,000, minus $100,000 to $200,000 in unemployment costs. She said she would provide specifics if the school board and City Council wish to pursue it.

Under "Disadvantages," Stringfellow wrote: “Increased class size in all other schools, disrupting an entire educational community of learners. This is a very drastic option for September.”

The budget committee took no votes Tuesday. The proposals will be discussed at a 6:30 p.m. virtual meeting Thursday of the joint Board of Education-City Council Ad Hoc Committee. The City Council must adopt a final budget, with a bottom-line school budget, by June 8.

“It goes against everything I know,” school board Chairwoman Heather Romanski said of Stringfellow’s cost-cutting proposal. “I don’t want to close a school. The magnet program is what sets us apart. We have worked very hard, and this board has worked very collaboratively with the superintendent. We have asked her to come into our district and get her hands around the finances and help us get on track.”

Romanski added that the budget woes could be worsened by the COVID-19 crisis, with likely mandates for social distancing in the small, crowded classrooms and added school buses to spread out student seating. “We don’t know what school is going to look like in fall,” she said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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