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Preston school board absorbs $363,000 budget cut

Preston — With help from a Norwich Free Academy tuition freeze, a retirement and a resignation in March, the Board of Education was able to incorporate the mandated $363,000 cut to its initial budget request without layoffs or cuts to student programs.

The board voted 5-0 in two votes during a special meeting Wednesday to adopt the $12,241,319 budget for 2020-21 approved by the Board of Finance in June, a $363,000 cut from the school board’s initial request. COVID-19 state executive orders allowed cities and towns to skip in-person budget town meetings and referendums and allowed the Preston Board of Finance to adopt the final budget.

After receiving requests from several NFA partner districts seeking budget relief, the NFA Foundation awarded a $1.3 million one-time grant to the NFA board of trustees, which then voted to rescind a planned 3% tuition hike and a restructuring of special education programs with varying increases.

The move saved Preston $120,000 in NFA regular and special education tuition costs to cover a third of the budget cut. The retirement of a paraeducator saved $40,407 in salary and benefits, and the resignation of a middle school teacher in March, whose position will not be filled with a new hire, saved another $72,400 in salary and benefits. The school district used a substitute to finish the school year, Superintendent Roy Seitsinger told the school board.

A third grade elementary school teacher will fill the middle school position, and three incoming third grade classes will be combined into two classes — a move that upset some board members, as student distancing must be increased when school reopens in fall. Seitsinger said the classes likely will have 21 and 22 students, still below the district’s cap of 24 students.

An English language and student performance gap teacher position was eliminated from the regular budget, saving $50,000. But Seitsinger said he hopes to use the town’s $63,000 federal CARES Act COVID-19 response funding to create a gap teaching position to address the needs of students who fell behind during the distance learning period. It would be filled by a reassignment of existing staff, he said.

The board adopted numerous other smaller cuts to supplies, administrative costs, a renegotiated copier lease, transportation and maintenance to make up the remaining cuts.

The board rejected options that would have affected students, including one suggestion to eliminate nonmandated bus transportation to magnet high schools in the region, a move that would have saved $13,000, and elimination of the $5,000 late bus that serves students in after-school programs and tutoring.

Board member Edward Gauthier proposed a more drastic cut to eliminate the nonmandated preschool program. Other board members quickly rejected the idea, with board member Cindy Luty saying it would be a “grave mistake to use preschoolers as a way to fix our budget problems.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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