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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Norwich school board seeks to keep $1.6 million budget surplus for emergencies

    Norwich ― For the second straight year, the Norwich school budget ended the fiscal year with a surplus of $1.6 million and is once again asking the City Council to place the money into a nonlapsing account established last year to cover future unanticipated costs.

    The City Council in June of 2021 established the nonlapsing account as allowed by state law to deposit all or part of any surplus in the Board of Education budget. By law, the amount in the account cannot exceed 4% of the school operating budget, which this year is $86.3 million, limiting the amount in the nonlapsing account to about $3.4 million.

    Last year, the council launched the account with $1.6 million in school budget surplus money, attributed to COVID-19 school closures and remote learning. Now, if the council agrees to place this year’s school budget of another $1.6 million into the account, it would be close to its statutory limit, said Robert Sirpenski, school business administrator.

    Sirpenski attributed most of the 2021-22 surplus to special education tuition and transportation costs coming in $1.5 million under budget. The school district’s effort to place more special education students in city schools helped the savings, and the number of special education students dropped.

    “Just as easily as we saved $1.5 million, it could go the other way,” Sirpenski said of the volatile annual costs of special education. “If we didn’t have a fund like this, we would have to go to the City Council and ask for the money at the end of the year.”

    The nonlapsing fund can be used for unanticipated, unbudgeted costs, such as special education or emergency capital projects. The city’s aging schools have had several of the latter, including replacing boilers in two schools, but did not need to tap into the nonlapsing fund. Sirpenski said the costs were handled through savings in the operating budget and using federal COVID-19 recovery grants.

    At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the council voted to refer the school board’s request to the joint council-school board ad hoc budget committee for a recommendation.

    Council President Pro Tempore Joseph DeLucia, who also chairs the ad hoc committee, said he supports placing the school budget surplus into the nonlapsing account. Alderwoman Stacy Gould, also a member of the ad hoc committee, co-sponsored the resolution to place the school surplus in the nonlapsing account. Alderman Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, a former school board member, also said he supports the move and praised the school board for trying to save money.

    DeLucia said the emergency fund would be critical if voters in November reject a referendum for a proposed $385 million school construction project that would build four new elementary schools and do a $99 million renovation of one middle school. The city’s cost after state reimbursement would be $149 million.

    School officials and architects working on the school construction designs have estimated the existing schools would need $225 million in repairs and upgrades over the next 20 years, with no state reimbursement, if the school construction referendum fails.

    “The needs of the current schools are so great, it wouldn’t touch them,” Sirpenski said of the nonlapsing fund.

    c.bessette@theday.com

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