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    Sunday, March 03, 2024

    Norwich, NFA school budgets already showing red ink

    Norwich ― Three months into the school year, financial officials at Norwich Free Academy and Norwich Public Schools are forecasting budget deficits and are attempting to cut costs in the hopes of avoiding budget and hiring freezes this year.

    NFA Head of School Nathan Quesnel met with NFA faculty last week and on Tuesday provided an overview to the NFA Board of Trustees on the financial picture for the current school year and projections for next year in the face of declining high school enrollment.

    Special education enrollment is down by 13 students from the early projection of 272 students, meaning a projected loss in tuition revenue of $750,000, Quesnel said. The academy also faces a shortfall in projected enrollment and lower tuition revenue from international students by about $150,000 to $200,000. Quesnel said fewer full-payment international students with NFA offering merit tuition discounts to some students based on their transcripts, Quesnel said.

    NFA has been cutting costs where possible on campus this year, Quesnel said, including not filling six positions, including one special education teacher and one Spanish teacher. Students have been assigned to other classes, Quesnel said, without a significant increase in class sizes. Quesnel praised staff for adjusting and sharing workloads in response to the cutbacks.

    No student programs have been curtailed, Quesnel said.

    NFA has asked all campus departments to cut costs where possible, he said, but without a mandated spending freeze to date. One math teaching position has been filled, and NFA must replace the leaking roof on the Tirrell Building, costing an estimated $350,000 and replace a failed chiller on that building’s roof.

    Quesnel presented the Board of Trustees with what he called “a very sobering” enrollment report that highlights a decline in projected high school enrollment throughout the region. Enrollment has been declining slowly over the past decade, and that trend is expected to continue.

    As of the Oct. 1 date when official enrollment is set for next year’s tuition bills to the partner districts, NFA has 52 fewer students than expected, affecting next year’s tuition revenue.

    Last January, NFA approved a $37.6 million operating budget for this year that included a 7.25% tuition increase for the eight partner districts that use NFA as their designated high school.

    NFA class sizes are trending downward, with the current 11th grade class at 580 students, 10th grade at 509 students and next year’s eighth grade class in partner districts at 468 students. NFA currently has 2,068 students, Tony Girasoli, director of IT told the Board of Trustees on Tuesday.

    Next year, the projections show 2,022 students, and for the following year, the projection drops to 1,831, as the current 11th grade class of 580 students will be replaced by an incoming ninth grade class estimated at 388.

    NFA Director of Admissions Kelby Chappelle outlined for the board efforts to boost student recruitment throughout the region to entice more eighth graders to choose NFA from among the growing number of high schools available.

    Robert Sirpenski, business administrator for Norwich Public Schools, reported to the Norwich Board of Education on Nov. 14 that this year’s operating budget could end up $715,000 in the red based on cost overruns in several areas. Sirpenski said he is awaiting invoices and more information on special education tuition costs for the early school months.

    The Norwich school system has been in a leadership turmoil since the fiscal year started in July. The Board of Education placed Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow on paid leave in August pending an investigation into allegations she led a toxic work environment. Interim Superintendent Susan Lessard, previously the principal at John B. Stanton School, placed Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster on leave as part of the same investigation.

    Sirpenski wrote that the investigation is expected to cost $28,500 to $57,000, and the cost of interim administration through Dec. 31 is estimated to cost another $60,000. Both costs are not in the budget.

    Special education costs paid by the city school district to NFA are projected to be $130,000 over budget. Tuition paid by Norwich to LEARN magnet school is $75,000 over budget, Sirpenski wrote. And the new state law that now allows special education students to remain in the school system through age 22 is expected to cost the Norwich school district an additional $350,000.

    Sirpenski said the school district faces another $50,000 deficit for software that previously was covered by grants.

    “Other operating budget line items will need to offset these early projected year-ending variances in order to avoid a year-end deficit,” Sirpenski wrote.

    He added that as other major expenses, such as winter fuel costs, utilities and health insurance, become known, the district might need to implement a budget freeze, hiring freeze or other measures to avoid ending the year in a deficit.

    c.bessette@theday.com

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