Waterford school board says it will pull out of Friendship School agreement

Waterford — Frustrated by cuts to education funding in the most recent state budget cycle, the Waterford school board has told LEARN, the regional magnet school provider, that it will pull out of its agreement with New London to send students for the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten magnet Friendship School.

In a June 28 letter sent to the New London school board and the director of LEARN, the regional agency that administers the school, Waterford School Board Chairwoman Jody Nazarchyk said Waterford would honor its commitment to the Friendship School for the upcoming 2016-17 school year but plans to end its partnership with New London effective July 1, 2017.

"We had to do something, because we weren't getting the financial support," Nazarchyk said. "We had to look at the big picture."

The move has left officials from LEARN and the New London School district with unanswered questions about the future of the school at 24 Rope Ferry Road in Waterford.

"We're really working together in both districts to study the implications of that decision," said LEARN Associate Executive Director Peter J. Cummings.

"We are committed to making sure all of the students are taken care of. We are working closely with New London to ensure they are not adversely impacted," Cummings said.

Cummings said he expects Waterford's decision will be the subject of the next meeting of the Friendship School's governing board, which includes school board members and superintendents from the Waterford and New London school districts. The board meets again in September.

Waterford's school board voted unanimously to send the letter, which Nazarchyk said was also aimed at sending a message to state legislators that cuts to local education funding have become too harsh.

About 520 kindergarten and pre-kindegarten students attend the school, split almost evenly between Waterford and New London. The school opened in 2005 and is the only free pre-kindergarten option for children in both municipalities.

According to the contract between the two towns, Waterford is required to give one year of notice before it pulls out of the agreement.

The Friendship School relies on pre-kindergarten and magnet funding from the state budget for most of its costs. Waterford and New London pay tuition to cover the rest — about $100,000 in the 2016 fiscal year. Tuition fees more than tripled for the current fiscal year.

During budget negotiations for the 2017 fiscal year, which began July 1, state legislators cut state money for magnet schools, stressing LEARN's budget.

At the same time, the state Department of Education was slow to distribute pre-kindergarten funding to LEARN for the 2015-16 year, creating a crisis within the agency and the Friendship School's governing board.

LEARN looked to Waterford and New London to make up the difference. And until weeks before the town passed its final budget, Waterford Superintendent Thomas W. Giard was requesting nearly $1 million in town money to keep the school afloat.

The state Department of Education finally distributed the pre-K money to LEARN in March, keeping the tuition it needed from New London and Waterford to about $350,000 each.

But that was a $250,000 increase for both towns in a year of extreme uncertainty about how the school would be funded in coming years.

In addition, the legislature-approved state budget cut funding for education cost sharing grants, and Waterford was hit especially hard.

That put additional strain on the Waterford school budget, which led the board to worry it won't be able to afford the Friendship School next year, Nazarchyk said.

"It's just this on top of everything else," Nazarchyk said.

Giard said the contract that created the Friendship School guaranteed that it will be open as a school until at least 2025.

But it’s up to LEARN to keep it going, regardless of whether Waterford guarantees students.

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” Giard said.

Kate McCoy, the New London school district's executive director of strategic planning, said she has been assured by LEARN that all New London's programs at the Friendship School were secure for the next year.

She said New London would work cooperatively with LEARN to ensure a continuation of services, especially considering Superintendent Manuel Rivera's commitment to universal pre-K as a major part of his strategic initiative.

The Waterford board has until June 2017 to change its mind and might reverse the decision if the state budget process yields more money and more certainty early in the budgeting process for the 2018 fiscal year, Nazarchyk said.

Nazarchyk did not specify what state legislators could do to deliver that certainty.

"They should tell us at least by January," she said. "They could also offer us more (money)."

g.smith@theday.com

m.shanahan@theday.com

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