Norwich Free Academy officials 'encouraged' that revised bill retains governance independence

Norwich — An intense lobbying effort by Norwich Free Academy alumni, officials and supporters against a proposed bill that would dramatically affect the governing structure at NFA has met with partial success, as changes approved late Friday removed a requirement that sending towns have representation on the school's board of trustees.

The General Assembly’s Education Committee on Friday approved revisions removing a town representation requirement from the bill submitted by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration. But the new bill retained proposed mandates for NFA and two other privately endowed high schools to provide financial audits and reveal both private and public funding sources to the state on an annual basis.

The bill also would require that the annual operating budget covered by public funds be reviewed by boards of education in the sending towns and be subject to a public hearing prior to adoption. The NFA Board of Trustees currently holds public meetings on their budgets, but there are no public hearings or opportunities for the public to comment on the budgets.

State education officials told the Education Committee during a March 6 public hearing that the bill was proposed in response to budget constraints in the towns that send students to the three endowed academies — NFA, Woodstock Academy and the Gilbert Academy in Winchester. When school budgets face cuts in sending towns, the entire cuts are applied to kindergarten through eighth grade programs, creating a dichotomy of education.

The NFA alumni newsletter sent to members Monday morning called it “encouraging news” that the revised bill removed the public representation provision. If the legislature passes the bill as written, the newsletter stated, “NFA will remain an independently governed, privately endowed academy.”

But NFA officials say they remain “cautiously optimistic” about the bill and will continue to track its progress.

“We will thoroughly review the revisions to the bill to fully understand the impact on Norwich Free Academy,” NFA Trustees Chairwoman Sarette Williams said in a written statement in response to the bill revisions. “We continue to look forward to discussions with our elected officials and others as part of that process.”

NFA officials, the Alumni Association and the NFA Foundation put out a call for supporters to contact state legislators and voice opposition to the bill to legislators on the Education Committee. Several supporters submitted testimony in opposition to the bill for the March 6 public hearing, including state Rep. Emmett Riley, D-Norwich, an NFA alum.

“As a proud Norwich Free Academy alumnus, a lifelong Norwich resident, and deputy majority leader of the House Democrats of the Connecticut General Assembly, I passionately support Norwich Free Academy, an independently governed and privately endowed academy which serves as the designated high school for eight communities (Bozrah, Canterbury, Franklin, Lisbon, Norwich, Preston, Sprague, and Voluntown) and tuition students,” Riley wrote in his submitted testimony.

State Sen. Heather Somers, vice chairman of the Education Committee, cast the lone dissenting vote on the revised bill Friday. Somers opposed the proposed requirements for NFA to release its endowment finances, and also said she does not trust that the provision regarding public representation by the sending towns won’t be restored to the bill.

“I have gotten close to 300 emails from people who attended NFA,” Somers said of the fierce opposition to the bill. “…. I’ve heard from people who went there in 1970 and emailed me from Florida.”

Somers said she understands that private donors would not want their information divulged, and holding public hearings on the budgets also is contrary to endowed academies' normal practices.

“We deeply appreciate the outpouring of support from alumni and members of the community over the past several weeks,” Williams said. “We will continue to be vigilant in our efforts to maintain NFA as a privately governed institution.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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