Norwich Free Academy officials oppose bill calling for dramatic governance changes

Hartford – Norwich Free Academy leaders and supporters voiced strong opposition Monday to a proposed bill that would give the eight partner school districts voting membership on the academy's board of trustees, require budget public hearings and would call for release of revenue information from the private endowment.

The bill, proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, was designed to give towns that send students to NFA and two other endowed academies in the state a say in budget decisions and more transparency into the operations of the academies, state Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell told the General Assembly's Education Committee Monday during a public hearing on the bill.

Wentzell said towns that send students to the endowed academies have complained that receiving tuition bills from the academies have left local boards of education with not enough funding for expenses in the lower grades. Specifically referring to Norwich, Wentzell said state funding has been necessary to ensure elementary schools have enough money to teach students to read. Norwich receives funding through the governor's Alliance District and Commissioner's Network School programs.

Sarette Williams, chairwoman of the NFA Board of Trustees, called the bill “an unprecedented, unnecessary level of oversight and governmental overreach upon a successful and transparently governed nonprofit providing outstanding opportunities to the region's students and exceptional value to NFA's partners.”

NFA charges tuition to the partner districts, with Norwich receiving a $200 per student discount to cover host town municipal services. While trustee meetings are public, including Head of Schools David Klein's budget presentations, districts have no input in budgetary decisions.

Williams told the Education Committee that NFA's model of independent governance has been in place for 160 years and is “intended to operate free of political or personal influence or conflict of interest.” Williams said a majority of both the Board of Trustees and the NFA corporators are required to be from Norwich, 66 percent, by their internal bylaws. The current 12-member Board of Trustees includes nine Norwich residents and one each from Preston, Canterbury and Franklin, all towns that have NFA as their designated high school. Other partner districts are Bozrah, Lisbon, Sprague and Voluntown.

Norwich public school Superintendent Abby Dolliver submitted written testimony supporting the public governance section of the bill requiring budget review, public hearing and board representation. Dolliver wrote that tuition, additional expenses for special education support staff for Norwich students at NFA and transportation, amount to a third of the local school budget.

“This proposed change would bring public oversight to the budget process,” Dolliver wrote. “These are public funds and should have public input/transparency.”

Franklin Board of Education Chairman Peter Calvert, however, opposed the bill, calling it “perverse logic” that NFA needs more oversight because public dollars fund tuition. He said NFA has always been considerate of the towns' financial constraints and has worked to hold tuition costs down through support of the private foundation.

Committee members throughout the lengthy hearing said they were unfamiliar with endowed academy high schools, tuition arrangements and lack of budget oversight.

In response to questions from committee co-Chairman Rep. Andrew Fleishmann, D-West Hartford, NFA trustee Chairwoman Williams said the current five-year contract with the towns called for NFA to limit tuition increases to 2.5 percent for the first three years at the request of the towns to give them budget stability. The master agreement with the towns also calls for bimonthly superintendent meetings with the partner districts and Klein, Williams said, and those meetings have been “under-attended” by the districts.

Keith Fontaine, board president of the NFA Foundation Inc., also said the foundation “is vigorously opposed” to the bill. Fontaine said the foundation solicits donations, accepts gifts and manages the endowment fund to benefit the academy.

Fontaine said NFA's independence does not mean it is indifferent to the districts' budget constraints. The foundation has provided tuition subsidies of $1.1 million to $1.2 million per year, a total of $5.9 million over five years, to reduce tuition, Fontaine said, and provided total endowment support of $8 million over the past five years.

“The foundation's substantial support from its donors has always been and continues to be, based on donors' firm and justified belief in the proven value of an independently governed and privately endowed academy,” Fontaine wrote.

Lesley Mitchell Jones, a retired partner at an assets management firm in New York, submitted written testimony opposing the bill. An NFA alum, Jones said she benefited from the “NFA academic brand,” as a student and became a donor. Jones said she is considering another “substantial future endowment donation,” knowing her money would be managed properly.

“Any compromise of Norwich Free Academy's independence wild have a chilling effect upon donor dollars indeed,” Jones wrote. “The long-term effect would be less support for the institution. Less support, ultimately means a reduced program or higher tuition. Will the state of Connecticut provide complete reparation for the loss of donor dollars that the overreach of Senate Bill 786 will cause?”

c.bessette@theday.com

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