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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Norwich school officials work to trim $100 million spending plan

    Norwich ― School officials presented a proposed $100.08 million budget for 2024-25 to the City Council on Tuesday, saying they are working to cut costs but cannot reach the $93.2 million target recommended by the city manager.

    The school board approved the proposed budget, an increase of more than $10 million, or 12%, over this year’s budget. City Manager John Salomone on Monday recommended the bottom line total of $93.2 million, a 4.25% increase.

    Acting Superintendent Susan Lessard and Business Administrator Robert Sirpenski told the council Tuesday they are working to restructure administration and staffing to cut costs and to determine how to handle the 52 positions now funded by federal COVID-19 recovery grants that end June 30.

    Sirpenski said the district also recently received more bad news from the state pertaining to the skyrocketing costs of special education. The state last year had pledged to provide school districts with 91% reimbursement for special education tuition and transportation costs that far exceeded their normal special ed costs.

    But so many school districts across the state needed excess cost reimbursement that the state dropped the reimbursement to 72.9%, costing Norwich $801,000 in this year’s budget.

    Sirpenski said the state now proposes cutting the reimbursement to 71% next year.

    Council President Pro Tempore Joseph DeLucia said the city manager’s recommended school budget is $7 million short of the board’s request. He asked whether restructuring and cost-cutting could make up that difference.

    “That’s money you’re not going to find in your budget,” DeLucia said. “Fair?”

    Lessard nodded. “That’s fair,” she said.

    “That’s more than fair,” Sirpenski added.

    Alderman William Nash asked how much meeting the school board’s request would cost in taxes. The answer — another 3 mills on top of the proposed 32.52 mills in the proposed citywide tax rate, not including fire taxes.

    “Obviously, it would be significant,” Salomone said. “It would be triple what I recommended,” referring to the board’s initial request.

    The budget reflects rapidly escalating special education costs 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.

    Lessard and Sirpenski described efforts to cut those costs by trying to provide special education programs within the Norwich school district, cutting out-of-district placements in high-tuition specialized schools. The city’s current aging schools have no space for the programs. The city just started work on a $385 million school construction project with four new elementary schools that will have space for more special education programs.

    Sirpenski said restructuring the school bus contract could provide significant savings as well.

    A joint Board of Education-City Council ad hoc budget review committee will begin a deep look at the school budget in the third week in April. Lessard said updates on the potential savings could be known better by early May.

    By charter, the City Council must adopt a final budget including a total for the school budget by the second Monday in June.

    Nash defended the public school system and said he would support the board’s effort to cut costs as best they can.

    “Please keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. “Find savings. I don’t know if you’re going to get $7 million in savings, but do what you can.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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