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NFA 2022-23 budget has 2% tuition increase, helped by COVID-19 relief grants

Norwich — The receipt of unprecedented federal COVID-19 recovery grants and continued support from its endowment fund helped turn a 7% Norwich Free Academy budget increase next year into a 2% tuition increase for partner school districts.

The NFA board of trustees on Tuesday unanimously approved a $37.1 million budget for the 2022-23 school year that calls for regular education tuition of $13,643 for most sending towns and $13,443 for Norwich, which receives a $200 discount for host-town services provided.

Head of School Brian Kelly, who was forced to give the presentation remotely because of coronavirus protocols, told the board there are continued pandemic disruptions to education, requiring the school to be flexible with changing schedules, staffing and programs. Tuesday’s absences declined significantly for the first time during the omicron variant surge.

COVID shutdowns of international borders also continue to present “a big headache” in NFA’s recruitment of international students. Pre-pandemic, NFA had budgeted for 60 international students, but had only 19 in 2020-21 and seven last year and will budget for seven next year at a tuition of $27,000 per student.

NFA also hopes to ramp up recruitment of local private tuition students from outside the eight-town partner district region. One new program expected to be a draw both locally and potentially internationally is the new Norwich Hockey Club. NFA hopes to have two elite-level boys and two girls teams, with strong interest thus far in the boys’ team at least, Kelly said.

"This program has a very, very bright future,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting for the community.”

Kelly thanked state and federal lawmakers, especially U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, for helping NFA qualify for federal COVID-19 education recovery grants. As a private endowed public academy, NFA usually does not qualify for state and federal education grants. NFA has received $1.8 million in the past two years, including $887,000 in federal Elementary, Secondary School Emergency Relief program for the 2022-23 budget.

Kelly and NFA Director of Finance and Human Resources Rich Freeman said he hopes NFA’s receipt of the ESSER funds “opens the door” for the academy to qualify for other state, federal and private grants in the future.

The NFA Foundation also will contribute $1.2 million in an operational budget subsidy next year, plus another $640,000 in restricted grants. The foundation also anticipates providing a small scholarship fund to provide financial aid to local private tuition-paying students, Kelly said.

One major operational change next year will be a redesigned Sachem Campus program, Kelly said. The program is for students who need more individualized education. Currently 32 students are enrolled at the campus, but Kelly hopes to boost the enrollment to the cap of 90 students, with a tuition decrease in that program from the current $29,212 per student to $22,500 per student — with another $200 less for Norwich students.

Kelly said it will provide more flexible, individualized education programs, with hands-on experiences within local communities so students have job skills upon graduation. Kelly said as COVID-19 relief grants phase out, many of the support programs offered through the grants will be covered through the Sachem program.

Overall, NFA is projecting enrollment totaling 2,104 students, higher than dire projections two years ago that predicted NFA would drop below 2,000 for the first time in decades. That never happened, as enrollment this year stayed above the threshold at 2,079 students.

The operating budget totals $37,150,871, an increase of $2,486,924, or 7.17%, over this year’s total, including $30.9 million for salaries and benefits for the total 293 staff, $3.2 million for instructional materials and $2.9 million for facilities.

c.bessette@theday.com

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