PORTSMOUTH — They differed in views on hiring decisions but the five Democratic candidates for school committee hold similar financial positions.
The Democrats competing for three slots on the general election ballot for four-year seats on the school committee fielded questions on academics, finances and more at the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens-sponsored candidates forum at Town Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 28. It’s the only primary race for Portsmouth voters, since all other candidates will go through to the general election ticket. The primary is Tuesday, Sept. 11.
The first question was whether candidates support the school committee’s new policy to make all hiring decisions in executive session (closed to the public), “which eliminates public discussion and a position-by-position vote” by school committee members.
Incumbent candidates, Marilyn King and Angela Volpicelli, defended the policy. Both said it is the superintendent’s duty to vet all employees and make hiring recommendations. Some personnel decisions include personal information that should not be made public, Ms. King said, and that’s why they are now made in executive session.
The other three candidates disagreed with the policy. Unless the decision involves low-level personnel like paraprofessionals, then the discussion should take place in public, said Emily Copeland. This was echoed by Terr-Denise Cortvriend and Andrew Kelly.
All core subjects should get more investment, said Mr. Kelly, when asked what academic areas need improvement. He would invest money in books and e-books.
Big cost-savings realized from a renegotiated health-care plan allowed the school district to invest in new science and math books for kindergarten through ninth grade, Ms. King said. The need was in those areas, she said, and now the school committee will look to buy books in other academic areas and in e-books.
Ms. Volpicelli also noted the new books bought for the district; moving forward, she said, new needs for books can be identified by monitoring students’ test scores, and right now she sees a need for writing scores to improve.
Improving the quality of education is why she’s running for school committee, Ms. Copeland said. Students who score below the proficiency standard must be raised and to do that will take a “concerted effort from kindergarten all the way up.” She criticized a reduction in special-education support staff in inclusionary classrooms.
Ms. Cortvriend also condemned the cuts in special-education support staff. She added that arts and extracurricular activities are just as important as the maths and sciences.
They all supported investing in technology for classrooms.
Asked what would be an adequate surplus maintained by the school department, all of the candidates said at least $1 million.
“I think the surplus should be wrapped back into the operating budget to reduce the need for further tax increases,” Ms. Cortvriend said.
Mr. Kelly said a surplus should be saved for emergencies. Ms. Volpicelli said a surplus is good to have as “a cushion we can fall back on for different needs,” such as making up for state-aid cuts or pension costs. “Any amount is a good amount to have in the surplus,” Ms. King said, to help keep the budget under the cap. With Portsmouth getting hundreds of thousands less in state aid each year for the next nine years, any surplus should be used to cushion that impact, Ms. Copeland said; however, “I would be very cautious about spending any money in the surplus account (for other items) until some of these longer-term liabilities are covered.”
All pledged to do what they could to keep the school budget under the cap placed on annual increases.
“I’m all for finding ways of getting funding so we don’t have to go to the taxpayer,” Ms. King said.
“I absolutley do not want to exceed the cap,” Ms. Volpicelli said.
“You have to have smart fiscal management,” Ms. Copeland said. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s the new normal.”
“I definitely support abiding by the tax cap,” Ms. Cortvriend said. But, she added, budget decisions should also be guided by the school district’s strategic plan. “If there was something the town supported (in the strategic plan) then there should be discussion, I think if it’s something that is going to enhance the schools.”
Mr. Kelly supports budgeting under the tax cap and using surplus and rainy-day funds “to alleviate the burden of state-aid cuts.”
Ms. Cortvriend and Ms. Copeland said they needed more information to say if they support the consolidation of positions of school and town finance directors, a move the school committee looked into earlier this year. Only the incumbents, Ms. King and Ms. Volpicelli, said it is a move they support.
Ms. Volpicelli said, “We are a small town and there really is no reason to have two directors.” In addition to savings in salaries and benefits, she said it would make budget time go more smoothly and “promote transparency.”
Mr. Kelly questioned that there would be savings. Both positions require full-time work, he said, so consolidation may result in having to hire support staff.