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With declining enrollment, NFA budget cuts staff, restructures administration

Norwich — Norwich Free Academy will undergo a major restructuring with staff cuts, redefined positions and operations changes in the 2021-22 school year based on sharply declining enrollment, uncertainty in international students and continuing costs of COVID-19 protections.

But while the overall operating budget of $34.6 million — approved by the school's board of trustees Tuesday — will decrease by $3.2 million, or 8.46%, from this year’s $37.8 million total, tuition for the eight partner districts with NFA as their main designated high school will increase by 3%. Regular education tuition will be $13,175 for Norwich and $13,375 for the seven other districts. Norwich receives a discount of $200 per student for host-town services.

A restructuring of special education programs put off last year is part of the new budget, with tuitions varying greatly by program.

Last year, a 3% planned tuition increase was erased when the NFA Foundation provided a $1.3 million one-time grant to cover the increase on top of its $1.2 million operations subsidy grant, as school districts struggled to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. The foundation did provide a $1.2 million tuition subsidy for the 2021-22 budget and added a $550,000 unrestricted grant the board will use for facilities improvements.

First-year Head of School Brian Kelly called the restructuring a “shift in thinking,” a necessary shift caused by declining enrollment exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re really at a point where NFA has to make a shift,” Kelly said. “This is a shift that has been coming for a few years. This is not something that appeared overnight. We are facing declining enrollment. It’s not just the competition, it’s about a smaller pool of students that’s available and also the opportunity for choice.”

NFA is expected to drop below 2,000 in enrollment for the first time since 1997, with a projected total of 1,972 students, with much smaller incoming classes. The 2021-22 senior class is projected at 522 students, while the incoming freshman class is at 440 students.

NFA also has taken a big hit in the number of international and private tuition-paying students. With COVID-19 travel restrictions, NFA had only 19 international students this year, far below the pre-COVID-19 plan of 60 students. NFA is projecting no international students next school year.

Private tuition students declined from 21 in 2019-20 to a projected 15 in the coming year. Kelly said some previous private tuition students have moved to Norwich, making them in-district students.

In response to the sharp enrollment drop and bleak financial picture, NFA will cut a total of 26 positions, including two administrators, 15 classroom teacher positions and nine other staff positions.

“Obviously, if we get 20 international students, we don’t have to cut those faculty positions,” Kelly said.

He said retirements and attrition will be used as much as possible to reduce layoffs.

The five long-standing house principal positions will be eliminated and replaced with mid-level or entry-level “streamlined management roles” with specific duties, such as curriculum and teaching, student and family engagement and alternative programs. Kelly said the current house principals could apply for the new posts but they would be at lower pay levels.

The director of facilities position already has been restructured, with some aspects shifted to the finance office.

The director of student affairs position, long held by John Iovino, also will be “redefined,” with some duties assumed by teaching department heads, whose roles also will be redefined to emphasize teaching leadership, Kelly said.

He said no courses, student programs or extracurricular activities will be cut next year.

Kelly said the 2021-22 budget represents the start of a multiyear “correction” in NFA’s finances, with more restructuring to come. If the enrollment projections hold, more changes will have to be made in the coming years, with declining tuition revenues.

With no corrective action taken for the coming school year, the tuition increase would have been 16%.

“That’s simply not going to happen,” Kelly said. “We have a fiscal responsibility and although we’re an independent school, our partners are public school districts with taxpayer dollars, and we have to be responsible for that tuition money and make sure we are using that tuition money appropriately.”

The board voted unanimously to approve the proposed budget. Board Chairman DeVol Joyner said the board’s finance committee has been involved in the budget process and fully supported the proposed changes.

“We asked him to look at everything, leave no stone unturned,” Joyner said.

Kelly said the NFA Foundation has donated $12 million over the past six years and must be focused on student support rather than operational costs.

Board member Allyn Brown said graphs in the budget presentation showing enrollment dropping off a cliff, while staffing has remained the same, were the most striking.

“We just can’t keep with the same number of staff,” Brown said, “with the student enrollment going down like that.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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