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Norwich school board could be allowed to keep rare surplus

Norwich — The school budget is expected to end the current fiscal year with a rare and substantial surplus, thanks to COVID-19 remote learning, and the schools could be allowed to keep all or some of that money.

The City Council on Monday unanimously approved an ordinance that creates a nonlapsing account where surplus school budget money could be directed at the end of a given fiscal year. The City Council would have control over whether or how much school surplus is placed in the fund or deposited into the city’s undesignated surplus fund, the only previous option.

It's rare for the Norwich school budget to end in surplus, brought on this year by savings in building and transportation costs with months of remote and hybrid learning. The exact amount is not yet finalized, but Mayor Peter Nystrom said it could be as high as $1.1 million.

In recent years, the Board of Education has ended fiscal years with a deficit and had to ask the council to cover it using the city’s undesignated fund. The council cut the school board's requested 2021-22 budget by $1.2 million.

Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow urged the council to support the nonlapsing account Monday, including a provision that it could be used to “offset general fund operating deficiencies.” That could cover unforeseen capital expenses, emergency staffing, natural disasters and other expenses.

School board Chairwoman Heather Romanski said the board is working hard to live within its annual budget and not rely on the city surplus fund.

Romanski and Alderman Joseph DeLucia cited the council-school board ad hoc committee's unanimous endorsement for the nonlapsing account. DeLucia, chairman of that committee, said the increased cooperation between the council and school board led to the recommendation. He said it makes the city “more flexible and more responsive” on education costs.

“We’ve arrived at this point where the Board of Ed and the superintendent of schools can be encouraged to be as fiscally prudent as possible without fear that they will be punished for it,” he said.

Key provisions include that the City Council decides how much of a given year’s school surplus is placed in the fund and has final say in how the money is spent.

City Comptroller Josh Pothier said the Board of Education recommends specific expenditures using the fund, and the City Council votes on the request.

Nystrom referred to the nonlapsing account as a rainy day fund, similar to how city government can ask the City Council to use the general fund for emergencies and unforeseen capital costs.

“It’s not just handing a barrel of cash over to the Board of Ed,” DeLucia said. “The City Council has input, has a say, has the vote as a body.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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