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Norwich superintendent discusses school budget, COVID-19 grants with City Council

Norwich — School leaders defended their proposed $87.5 million 2021-22 budget before the City Council on Tuesday and discussed how the projected $26 million in COVID-19 relief grants would help students recover lost learning.

City Manager John Salomone has proposed a school budget total of $86.3 million, a $2.1 million or 2.5% increase over this year’s total. But it is $1.2 million short of the 3.95% increase requested by school officials.

Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said several key items cause the budget jump, including salaries, a $379,544 increase; tuition, up 7.6%; health insurance, up by $271,000, and transportation, up by nearly $100,000.

The only new staff are a transportation/safety coordinator and grant-funded education equity coordinator and reading and math teachers.

Last year, even with a nearly 4% budget increase, the district cut 94 staff, cutting school nurses and custodians "too far," Stringfellow said. The district was saved by COVID-19 grants to hire certified nurses’ aides to staff student isolation rooms and pay custodians overtime to meet cleaning guidelines.

Stringfellow assured aldermen the proposed $85,000 salary for the transportation/safety coordinator would pay for itself in school bus savings, which also should reduce ride times. The person also would oversee safety and seek grants to improve school safety.

She made similar pledges for a residency/attendance officer position created in November 2019, and an assistant special education director this year.

In his report to the Board of Education on April 6, Residency/Attendance Compliance Officer Ed Peckham calculated the cumulative savings or avoided tuition costs of residency cases at $3.7 million from November 2019 through April 5, 2021.

City and school officials have received complaints from taxpayers demanding the city seek reimbursement or criminal prosecution of nonresidents for enrolling their children in city schools. But Stringfellow said the issue is considered civil rather than criminal, and it would be difficult to obtain reimbursements.

Stringfellow said the initial $6.3 million federal COVID-19 grant this year was used to purchase laptops and software for remote learning and to prepare to return to school. She outlined plans for the more than $26 million expected in additional COVID-19 response grants.

The federal coronavirus relief grants, as well as state Alliance District school improvement funds cannot replace regular spending. But Stringfellow will use some grant money to speed up her plan to hire math and reading teachers in all schools, replacing noncertified classroom interventionists.

Federal funds will pay for a "robust” summer school program, social and emotional supports and musical instruments for all schools. Norwich also will launch middle school unified sports in partnership with Special Olympics, with regular and special education students playing together. 

“We want to make sure we are investing in things that will matter to kids in the long term,” Stringfellow said, “and for things that our students haven’t had access to, which neighboring communities have.”

Council President Pro Tempore Mark Bettencourt applauded the move to purchase lasting equipment, knowing the city can't afford an adequate capital improvements budget for school technology and equipment.

“I’m excited to hear you put music back in,” said Alderman William Nash, former city police DARE drug education officer. “I know that music is incredibly important, especially the younger age children in K to five, because it really promotes learning.”

Stringfellow was asked what she would cut if the council did not fund the additional $1.2 million requested. She said after finding "every efficiency,” she would be forced to shift some costs to state and federal grants.

That would postpone her goal — supported by the City Council — to reduce the school district’s reliance on grants for regular educational costs. She cautioned the school budget already has “flocks” of general education staff funded through state Alliance District funding, which is not guaranteed each year.

“It should be enhancement,” she said.

Alderwoman Stacy Gould strongly advocates reducing the reliance on grants, but asked if Stringfellow could put off her plan for a year, “especially with what’s going on with the COVID pandemic.”

“I would have to,” Stringfellow responded. “And it’s something the Norwich Public Schools has done, unfortunately, for decades. Can that continue? It can continue. It’s not the best practice to have it continue, and in the long run it’s going to cost the citizens more. A stable investment, based upon what our fixed cost increase is, is best management practice.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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