Mayor: Schools a major issue for Concord development

  • Concord School Board candidates speak at a forum at Concord High School on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 10/31/2019 5:46:16 PM
Modified: 10/31/2019 5:46:03 PM

The biggest hurdle to economic development in the city of Concord is the reputation of the school district, Mayor Jim Bouley said at a candidates’ forum Tuesday night.

“When you pick up the morning paper, when you turn on your local news, and you see headlines about the school district, it becomes very difficult to grow that tax base here and to bring people here,” he said.

Bouley pointed to advances in development in the capital city in recent years – the Main Street redesign, the Love and Smile buildings, housing projects on Pleasant Street and on State Street. But he said employers are looking for something more when they decide to start a business or build in a city.

“If we are to grow that strong economic development in our city, we need a strong, healthy school system,” he said. “I can’t emphasize enough that we need a positive experience with our school district. It directly affects our ability as the City Council to expand our tax base.”

Despite voicing concern about the school district, Bouley and three candidates for at-large city council seats said the city shouldn’t change its charter to have more oversight of the school board in the midst of an investigation into school officials’ handling of sexual misconduct allegations. Concord is the only city in the state where the school board has complete autonomy over its budget.

“I don’t know how the city benefits by adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to the school board right now,” said at-large councilor Byron Champlin, who is running for re-election. “I think that we have to be careful about trying to find a quick solution to more complex problems.”

Champlin said the voters are the employers of the school board, and they can choose not to re-elect them if they are unhappy with their leadership.

At-large candidate Nathan Fennessy said that people often forget that there are two school districts in Concord – Concord and Merrimack Valley.

“If you want to go and change the charter and change the manner in which perhaps you have oversight of the school board, that’s one thing,” Fennessy said. “But you can’t just fold into districts and expect the City Council at this point to take ownership.”

“I think by and large over the years, the model has worked,” Fennessy added.

Edith Chiasson is also running for an at-large seat. There are three candidates for the two at-large seats.

On the mayoral side, Linda Rae Banfill is challenging Bouley for a second time.

There are two contested ward races on the City Council. In Ward 1, incumbent Brent Todd is challenged by Kevin Miller. In Ward 8, incumbent Gail Matson faces Dennis Soucy.

The city’s role in the school board was one of a few major topics of conversation at a forum hosted by the Monitor at Concord High School on Tuesday night, along with the state’s proposed Interstate 93 widening project, economic development, transparency in city government and affordable housing and development in Penacook.

School board

There has been a lot of anticipation in recent months in Concord as the community awaits the release of a report by an independent investigator that will provide more information about how district officials responded to sexual misconduct allegations.

The board already received the first section of the report, and placed Superintendent Terri Forsten and Concord High Principal Tom Sica on paid administrative leave. However, board members have not released that portion of the report, and say that they are limited by what they can divulge at this point about the investigation for personnel reasons. This has led to frustration from some members of the public looking for answers.

On Thursday, the school board released the second and final portion of the report, which offers recommendations on policy changes, but does not give details specific to the allegations.

Two incumbents on the school board are running for re-election, Jim Richards in District A and Pam Wicks in District C.

“I spent my summer working very hard with the board in trying to navigate these uncharted waters. When I ran for the board, never in a million years would I thought that this is what I would be doing. But it is what I’m doing. I have a job to do,” Wicks said.

“I understand that people are confused and hurt and angry. And they should be. Mistakes were made and mistakes were made by us and now that I sit back and reflect on that time, I can see where we could have been better at communicating with the public about the things that we were doing.”

Richards agreed.

“I understand that the community is angry and frustrated. I’m a parent, I have two boys in high school. I appreciate that,” Richards said. “As a school board member, I can say that we have taken it very seriously and we’ve addressed the problem. We’re working through a process. What we have to do is defined not only by contracts but also by state law and federal law.”

Wicks, who volunteers regularly in the schools of her three sons, said she would like to continue working on planning for the new middle school facility. She said she’s advocated on the state and local levels for important issues, like the need for a better adequacy funding formula.

Richards said his strengths are his experience in business and finance, and his willingness to collaborate with and listen to community members.

Gina Cannon, a mother in the district running against Wicks, said she wants to help the district rebuild trust in the community.

“The way that the school district seemingly handled the reporting of the incidents was deeply, deeply disturbing and created a huge rift in the relationship between our community and our school system,” she said, of district leaders’ response to reports made about a former teacher arrested for sexual assault. “The continuing issues of transparency and accountability with respect to the handling of the incident within the school district are causing lingering anger and distrust.”

Air Force veteran Pam Myers, who is running against Richards, wasn’t able to attend the forum. Myers has said two issues that motivated her to run for school board are the need for more checks and balances in the school system and student safety.

Max Schultz, running in District B, said he could bring knowledge from his 30-year career in public safety to the board.

His opponent, Parker Academy owner, David Parker said he can bring knowledge from a long career in education. He said the schools need a change in leadership to rebuild public trust. Parker has also said that schools need to do more to tend to the increasing number of students dealing with mental health issues.

I-93 widening

On the city side, candidates stressed that they want voters to be involved in the plans for the Interstate 93 widening project, which has been proposed by the state.

Fennessy said that if elected to the City Council, he would want to make people aware of the potential impact and get the community involved in visioning sessions.

“If we allow the state just to move ahead, they’re going to do the path of least resistance,” he said. “That’s not necessarily in our best interest. So from my perspective, I want to make sure, number one, that however the project is done that it enhances and complements the work that we’ve done on Main Street ... and it enhances our connection to the river.”

“I want to make sure that it facilitates our ability to develop those areas like Storrs Street and Commercial Street, which I think are really the next areas of development,” he added.

Bouley said he thinks a strength of his as a candidate is the work he’s done so far connecting with state agencies about the widening project. He said they need to be active in the next two years to make sure the city continues to be in communication with the Department of Transportation.

“We cannot sit on our hands for the next two years. We have to be engaged,” he said.

Edith Chiasson, an at-large city council candidate, said from a safety perspective, she thinks the project is “long overdue.” She said her concerns were economic development and planning for traffic and construction.

Future economicdevelopment

In addition to a healthy school system, Bouley said housing is another important draw to bring people into the city for economic development. He said there aren’t enough available rentals now, and the ones available are often too costly for many residents.

He also reiterated that Concord residents need to think carefully about the development they’d like to see by the river, off the highway. The area of Stickney Avenue, right off of Exit 14, is going to be an important piece of land for consideration, Bouley said.

Matson, the incumbent in Ward 8, said she was excited about a proposal for mixed-use development at Exit 13.

“I really feel like a mixed-use idea is very valuable,” she said. “In Ward 8, we have actually quite a bit of commercial property. I’d like to see more of that mixed use that we’ve been talking about where we can have the goods and services that are right there with people, along with businesses and more places to live. Then a person may not have to walk so far and those people who may not have a car or may have other transportation issues, they can all get addressed rather easily.”

“I think that we are at that tipping point where we’ve set the table,” Matson said. “We have so much potential and ... I’d like to be part of that and I’d like to keep the momentum going.”

Matson’s opponent, Dennis Soucy, did not attend the forum.

Transparency

Another issue that came up at the forum was the importance of transparency in city government.

One way the city has done that is to allow the public to review cost items in city contracts prior to a council vote, Bouley said. The recent development was a result of research by the Fiscal Policy Committee, which includes Champlin.

Chiasson said that she was pleased to learn that information about contracts would be available to taxpayers. Still, she said the city could do a better job educating residents about city processes.

“When you have these reports go out, sometimes those who are receiving the information don’t quite understand what it means and what the ramifications are,” she said. “They might see a high cost to something, but don’t understand what’s behind that cost. So with the transparency, I would encourage some education and information for the public. So that again, as they respond to councilors and ask questions, they have a little bit more to go on.”

Banfill, Bouley’s opponent for mayor, said she also thinks the city would benefit from more transparency. She said she’s been looking for more transparency when it comes to the city manager’s contract.

“I think the city manager has much too much power. That’s the way the system is. I think his review should be open to the public and transparent,” Banfill said. “I think the people of Concord have a responsibility to speak up. The City Council and the mayor work for the people.”

Penacook

Erle Pierce, who is running unopposed in Ward 2, said his ward is a tale of two school districts. Ward 2 is split between Concord and the village of Penacook, where students attend the Merrimack Valley School District.

“Anything we can do to help, especially taxpayers, who pay $5.41 per $1,000 (of assessed home value) more than those that belong to the Concord School District,” he said when asked about the issues that he would prioritize if elected. “Anything we can do to take the pressure of homeowners would be good.”

Miller, running in Ward 1, said his main concern as a candidate is also property taxes. He said there’s been concern in Penacook that the development that’s been coming in – plans for affordable housing at the old tannery site, for one – isn’t bringing the village in the right direction to help expand the tax base.

“People that asked me to run for City Council ... want more small business there, they feel that bringing in more housing, especially low-income housing,” he said, his sentence trailing off. “Yes, you want customers for your business, but if they’re low-income as it is, what kind of customers are they?”

“They are concerned about more crime in Penacook,” Miller said, of the conversations he’s had with taxpayers.

Miller said the city needs to come up with a plan that works for both sides.

Todd said he agrees that there needs to be a balance between commercial and housing development. A major problem that has contributed to stagnation in Penacook as industrial businesses have left is that there really isn’t a lot of foot traffic in the area, he said.

“You’re not going to just get businesses to come,” unless Penacook can grow its population. “We are continuing to work with affordable housing and other types of housing. We need all kinds of housing in Penacook and throughout the city.”

Todd said the Exit 17 development will also draw people to the area.

Pierce said it’s tough to know which hurdle to attack first – providing more residential or businesses.

“If you have people, you’re going to have a business come in. If you have the business come in, they have their employees,” he said. “There’s this circle of life, if you will, that one sort of begets the other.”

“If I was on the council when this vote came up, I would have voted to have that housing,” he said, of the vote by the council to sell the old tannery site. “If Penacook is going to be walkable, and it’s going to have the amenities, then you’re going to need people who are going to be residents.”

Pierce said a major issue he would focus his efforts on in Concord is the maintenance of roads, especially the condition of Bog Road.




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