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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Norwich school board reluctantly approves $100M budget for 2024-25

    Norwich ― Calling it a starting point and a work in progress, the Board of Education on Tuesday approved a proposed school budget that tops $100 million for the first time.

    The board voted 7-0 to approve the 2024-25 budget, reluctantly, some said, with two members, Gregory Perry and Christina Milton absent.

    The budget reflects rapidly escalating costs in special education and the end of federal COVID-19 recovery grants that this year are funding 52 staff positions, including the district’s three school resource police officers.

    “We have to start from the starting point,” board Chairman Mark Kulos said. “We can only deal with what’s in front of us.”

    The budget totals $100,084,846, an increase of more than $10 million or 11.9% compared to the current $89.4 million budget. The current budget, though, is projected to end the year with a $1.9 million deficit, driven mostly by dramatically increasing special education costs.

    School Business Administrator Robert Sirpenski repeated portions of the budget presentation he provided to the school board budget committee on Thursday explaining escalating special education costs mandated by the state. In this year’s budget, a last-minute change in state legislation requiring schools to educate special education students through June of their 22nd year cost Norwich $450,000.

    The state reimburses the Norwich school district for a portion of special education costs above a certain level, called excess cost. Sirpenski said he budgeted this year for the state’s promised reimbursement rate of 91%, but when costs skyrocketed for districts statewide, the state reduced the reimbursement to 72.9%, the lowest rate in five years. This cost Norwich $801,000 in lost reimbursement, Sirpenski said.

    In next year’s budget, Sirpenski budgeted for the 72.9% reimbursement rate.

    In the $100 million preliminary budget, special education contracted services was projected to jump by $895,710 to $2.7 million. Tuition, including Norwich Free Academy and other high schools, totals $38.89 million, up by 38.8%, with special education outplacement making up $11.78 million of the total.

    Salaries are projected to total $20.2 million, up by $514,365, just 2%.

    Sirpenski said many factors remain undecided in next year’s budget. Norwich is slated to receive a $3.78 million increase in its state Alliance District grant, allocated to struggling school districts for education improvement plans. The money cannot be used to fund regular operating costs but must be spent on state-approved school improvements.

    Board member Christine Distasio said the board should consider using Alliance District money to pay for the school resource officers if that is allowed.

    Kulos agreed with resident Joanne Philbrick that the budget total is “shocking,” but said final expenses and revenues will not be finalized until June.

    City Manager John Salomone will present his budget proposal, including a recommended bottom line for the school budget, to the City Council on April 1.

    The state legislative session is expected to end May 11, and the City Council will adopt its final budget by June 10.

    “Every school district is facing the same,” new board member John Iovino said. “This is where we are today. We have work to do. It’s a process.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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