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Norwich joint committee recommends 5.5% school budget jump

Norwich — A joint school board-City Council committee voted to recommend a 5.5% school budget increase, $2 million above the city manager’s recommended school budget increase of 2.4%.

But the vote met with immediate criticism by Mayor Peter Nystrom, who said the resulting spending and tax increase was “totally devoid of reality.”

The proposed increase with no other budget cuts would require a 2.07-mill, or 5%, tax rate increase to 42.35 mills.

The committee of six Board of Education members and three aldermen voted 8-1, with only Republican Alderwoman Stacy Gould voting against, to forward the recommended 5.5% school budget increase to the full City Council. School board Chairwoman Heather Romanski pledged the school board would make "painful" cuts to stay within that $85.4 million total, which is $2.9 million below what Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said the district would need to keep all current programs.

Stringfellow a day earlier provided the Board of Education Budget Expenditure Committee a proposal to cut $2.9 million from the $85.4 million total. The plan included eliminating about 50 support staff positions, eliminating elementary school magnet themes, closing one preschool and eliminating art, music and extras from the second preschool.

“I understand your job is to take into account all the residents of Norwich,” Romanski said to the council members on the committee. “My job is to take into account the public education we are required to provide the children of Norwich.”

Council President Pro Tempore Mark Bettencourt and committee Chairman Alderman Joseph DeLucia voted in favor of the 5.5% along with the six school board members on the joint committee.

Gould argued strongly against the increase. She repeatedly criticized school officials for failing to provide a clear and accurate list of all grants the school district receives to supplement the school budget, complaining that she has received conflicting numbers on grants and staffing.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Gould said. “We have hundreds of people out of work. Hundreds of people might not be able to go back to the jobs they had before. Hundreds can’t pay their taxes. State revenue is going to be reduced. I don’t think anyone knows what we’ll get.”

Bettencourt and DeLucia said they struggled with the recommendation, but said the city manager's proposed 2.4% increase is inadequate.

“I am not on board with the city manager’s recommendation,” DeLucia said. “I do believe that is far too little money to operate the school system, regardless of all the other moving parts.”

DeLucia said he was told a 5.5% school budget increase could lead to a cut of 37 city government positions to keep the tax rate in check.

“I have a challenge with both numbers,” he said, “and I don’t know that a good number lays with either one of them or somewhere in between.”

Bettencourt said he wanted an assurance the school board would not continue to need to use the city’s undesignated fund balance to cover deficits. The fund balance is $13 million, but the current school budget is projected to end with a $1.1 million deficit.

Bettencourt said he agreed with Gould that the city is in a difficult economic plight with COVID-19 job losses and admitted he had "a hard time stomaching” the 5.5% school increase, although he voted for it.

c.bessette@theday.com

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