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Budget dominates school board candidates’ forum

Eight candidates are vying for four slots on the Concord School Board, and last night nearly all of them agreed on one thing: the district’s budget will continue to pose some serious challenges.

The board settled the district’s current fiscal year’s tax rates last week but faces a projected $1.8 million reduction in state adequacy money for the 2013-2014 school year, officials say. It’ll be difficult, all the candidates said, to continue to provide a high quality education without placing undue burdens on taxpayers.

“It’s budget, budget, budget,” said Ridgely Mauck, who lives on Pond Place Lane and is one of four seeking to take over the seat vacated when Jack Dunn left to become the district’s business administrator. Two years are left on that term. The other three candidates are: Eric Weiner of Hoit Road, Patrick Taylor of North Spring Street and Thomas Croteau of First Street.

“Certainly we have to remember that as our economy declines . . . the needs of our students grow,” said Kass Ardinger, who lives on Westbourne Road, is the current president of the school board and is seeking a third term. She and three others hope to fill three, three-year spots. The other candidates are: George “Rusty” Cofrin of Groton Drive, Clint Cogswell of Auburn Street and Oliver Spencer of Pine Street.

About 30 people attended the forum, hosted by the Christa McAuliffe Elementary School PTO and the League of Women Voters in the school’s cafeteria. It was moderated by Ursula Maldonado.

Only one of the eight candidates was unable to attend. Spencer, who is retiring from the U.S. Marine Corps after more than 20 years of service, was in Quantico, Va., to finalize his paperwork. His father-in-law, Michael Gfroerer, read a statement in his place and then, departing from the prepared marks, encouraged voters to support his son-in-law.

“Just keep in mind that, with all due respect, there are plenty of lawyers on the board, and there are plenty of former educators on the board,” Gfroerer said. “But it might be interesting to have a military point of view.”

While all agreed that the needs of the students in the district need to be balanced against those of the taxpayers, the candidates articulated subtle differences in how they’d strike that balance.

Croteau, a retired teacher and administrator in Concord and the Winnisquam Regional School District, said keeping high quality teachers is essential for students to learn.

“I know in my heart as an educator for many years that if you pay people and you keep them happy they will stay,” Croteau said. “Good products do cost money.”

Weiner said he believes taxpayers will continue to support the schools because they believe in the value of educating their children.

“Concord taxpayers are reasonable people. If something needs to be paid for, they’ll pay for them,” said Weiner, a stay-at-home dad. “I think there’s an understanding that education is important.”

Cofrin, who coached and taught math for almost 30 years in Concord, said he thinks there’s more to satisfying teachers than money.

“We still need to fund the teachers, otherwise they will not be here, they will find another place to teach . . . . But there still has to be a balance with the tax rate,” he said. The teachers stay not only for the money but because they truly care about the students and community, Cofrin said.

“The union has always been good . . . about making compromise.”

Cogswell, a former educator who is presently vice president of the board, noted that district has, in recent years, managed to cut the budget when asked by the city.

“You have to keep a fine line on everything that you do,” he said. He said he’s concerned the Legislature will continue to “downshift” costs, such as those of retirement, to local communities.

“The only way this community raises taxes is through property taxes,” he said.

Taylor, a Manchester-based attorney with two daughters too young to attend school, said the “best interests” of the children should provide a “baseline” for district spending.

“I strongly believe that investing time and resources into our schools is critical to the health and growth of this great and increasingly diverse city,” he said.

Mauck, a civil engineer with the state Department of Environmental Services, said three of his children spent their entire academic careers in Concord’s schools. He said he hopes a tight budget won’t lead to a cut in necessary programs.

“I don’t want to see cuts due to some recent things that were out of the school system’s control being made at the state level,” Mauck said.

Ardinger said that budgetary votes often come down to each board member’s “individual sense of what’s fair and what’s right,” and that those decisions are getting harder and harder with each budget of the economic downturn.

“You’ve got more and more asked of the taxpayer because the state is not providing as much as it used to,” she said. “And the needs of the students, they never get less.”

Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @MAKConnors

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