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Questions of racial equity raised about Norwich school layoffs, budget cuts

Norwich — The Norwich branch of the NAACP will investigate complaints and concerns raised over how the public school system is enacting layoffs and service cuts due to school budget cuts.

Layoffs are underway for the more than 40 positions cut in the 2020-21 school budget, but school officials said Monday the exact number of staff members to lose their jobs is not yet known.

The layoffs sparked complaints to the NAACP that the cuts disproportionately affect minority school staff members, and that the decision to eliminate cross-town transportation to the city’s two intra-district elementary magnet schools will create inequities in school choice. School officials estimated saving about $400,000 by no longer transporting students from outside the neighborhood school bus transportation zone to the Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet School and the Wequonnoc Arts and Technology Magnet School.

At its board of directors’ meeting Thursday, the Norwich NAACP established a task force to review the complaints and related issues, branch President Shiela Hayes said Monday. The task force will meet for the first time Wednesday. The Norwich NAACP branch also is forming a special group to focus on educational disparities within Norwich public schools. Task force members will seek to meet with school officials after reviewing the complaints, Hayes said.

School Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said she was not aware the NAACP had received concerns about how the budget cuts are being implemented.

“I can assure you that the layoffs are being conducted in partnership with the union leadership and are being done in reverse seniority order,” Stringfellow said Monday. “We are not aware of the layoffs disproportionately affecting staff of color. I am happy to meet with Shiela and task force members to discuss and brainstorm solutions should that occur.”

According to statistics compiled by the state Department of Education, Norwich public schools have 314 white educators, 95% of the staff, six educators of Asian descent, 1.8%, five African American educators, 1.5% and two Hispanic educators, 0.6% of the total.

Amid swirling rumors regarding the budget cuts, Stringfellow sent a letter to school families and staff Friday outlining the cuts made to date and dispelling some rumors — including that the school system has not “fired” all its para-professionals.

“We have not laid off or fired all of our paraprofessionals,” Stringfellow wrote. “We have not laid off or fired all of our educators of color. In fact, this year we have strengthened our commitment to recruit educators of color. We believe that actively seeking out and supporting a diverse workforce will better support and prepare our students.”

According to the letter, 30 of the school system’s 161 paraprofessional positions will be eliminated, as well as four of 28 custodial positions, three of 28 administrative assistant positions, three licensed practical nurses of 15 nursing positions, two payroll positions and two vacant teaching positions.

Additionally, 25 of the 57 non-union part-time or temporary staff, 44% of the total, have been eliminated.

On Monday, School Business Administrator Athena Nagel said paraprofessional cuts and selections for other available positions were completed. The cuts amounted to 11 involuntary layoffs, seven voluntary layoffs, and 12 vacant positions to be left unfilled. Nagel said some positions have been combined into special education/English language learner positions.

Exact numbers of layoffs, vacancies and transfers were not yet available Monday for the other affected positions. Layoffs of unionized positions are being done based on staff with the least seniority, Stringfellow said.

NAACP President Hayes said the branch received five complaints from minority paraprofessionals and part-time non-union staff members. The complaints alleged that the cuts eliminated a diverse group of minority support staff, many of whom work with immigrant minority students, and that a disproportionate number of the part-time staff laid off were minorities.

Hayes said the branch also received concerns from parents on the plan to eliminate bus transportation for students outside the two magnet schools’ normal bus zones. The school district will allow parents to transport their children and will accommodate students who are transported to childcare facilities within the magnet district.

Hayes said the magnet transportation cut contradicts the school system’s long-standing message of supporting schools of choice. Parents who are unable to transport their children would be denied their school choices, Hayes said.

"If you take away busing, you are taking away schools of choice," Hayes said. "You are disproportionately affecting students who don’t live in the transportation zone, and if their parents aren’t able to provide transportation.”

Hayes said parents also pointed out that the school system has expanded its list of high schools of choice and pays to transport high school students to some of those schools. Transportation to magnet high schools is mandated by the state.

“The Board of Education has continued to expand schools of choice in high school and are busing kids,” Hayes said. “And you’re not going to provide transportation to bus kids within Norwich for a school of choice?”

Stringfellow said she had expressed her own concerns about unequal access to the magnet schools during budget meetings. She said principals and PTOs are brainstorming other possible solutions, such as car pooling.

“I am very receptive to other suggestions on how we could maximize access,” Stringfellow said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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