North Stonington - Lowering the out-of-district tuition rate could bring in a much-needed source of funds to the school system, Wheeler High/Middle School Principal Chris Sandford told the Board of Education during a work session Wednesday evening.
Sandford suggested a new policy that would lower the tuition from about $14,000 to somewhere around $8,000 and create a competitive application process. He said the high school could take 30 to 40 students spread across four grades without needing to hire more staff.
"What we're talking about is: We have empty seats, and we want to fill them," said Superintendent Peter Nero. "And that's a good thing."
Sandford said the school would have to launch a marketing campaign and hire an outside firm to promote Wheeler as a place to go for small class sizes and strong college preparation. Sandford said two students attending Wheeler now who came from an area private school are paying tuition, which goes to the town.
"We are an attractive school," he said.
The tuition policy as it stands under state law allows the Board of Education to set tuition at "school level" for any student outside the North Stonington district who wishes to attend the high school - around $14,000, or the cost of running school divided by the number of students attending.
Board members were receptive to Sandford's proposal, and Sandford and Nero said they will put together a more comprehensive proposal to present to the board at a later date.
"I think what you're trying to do should have been done a long time ago," said Chairman Bob Testa. "You throw a $14,000 tuition at someone - how many people over the years have considered coming?"
The new policy proposal came as the board continues to discuss its budget for fiscal year 2013-14, set as of Wednesday to increase by about 7 percent after years of level-funding or 1 or 2 percent increases that Nero said have left him with "no place else to go."
If the education budget is level-funded again, Nero said, he would be forced to cut multiple teaching positions and sports programs.
"Is the town going to invest in public education or is it not going to invest in public education?" he said. "That's the bottom line."
Nero said he was waiting to find out how much money the school could save by joining a local health care consortium of area schools. The school's health care premium is set to increase 20 percent next year.