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School Board Race Draws 6 in Claremont

Voting by Australian ballot on the school district warrant is Tuesday, March 11, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Ward 1 and Ward II residents vote at the middle school and Ward III residents vote at Disnard Elementary School.

Claremont — Contested races for three School Board seats and a $34 million budget will be decided by voters at the annual school district vote on March 11.

The proposed budget includes $31.1 million for the general fund in addition to money for food service, adult education programs and grants, which do not affect the school tax rate.

The $1.4 million increase represents 4.7 percent more than the $29.7 million general fund budget for the current year.

The budget would add $1.26 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to the overall school tax rate and a separate technology article for $204,000, another 26 cents, for a total tax rate increase of $1.52. That also includes an 11 cent decrease in the state education rate.

The projected new school tax rate of $21.09 would add $228 in annual school taxes on a home assessed at $150,000, which is the median price in Claremont. The default budget of $34.2 million would add $1.52 to the tax rate.

School officials have said the main pieces of the increase are a $1.1 million rise in debt service to cover the first year bond payment in the $12.6 million Stevens High School renovation project that was approved last March; $45,000 to pay for an athletic trainer at the high school; and $246,000 for salary increases, including the first year of a three-year contract for teachers and a one-year agreement with administrators. If the budget is approved, the district is committed to paying the second ($346,000) and third year ($371,000) of the teachers’ contract.

The board instructed the administration to draft a budget that limited the overall increase to about the total associated with those three items. To achieve that goal, about $365,000 was cut from the initial budget proposal, including the $204,000 for technology purchases which was moved into a separate article.

School Board Chairman Richard Seaman said the increase in the debt service was a known quantity following the bond vote last year, and the teachers’ contract is the first in three years for the union.

“It is really an important recommendation not only for the teachers who are here but addresses pay for new teachers,” said Seaman.

The new starting salary for teachers increased about $2,000 to just under $35,000 annually.

Seaman said the budget is partially about “reinvesting” resources by creating new positions of student services coordinators to assist the three elementary school principals that will be paid for through staff reductions at the high school as the result of retirement and attrition in courses with low enrollments.

“We looked at our highest priority and what gives us the greatest benefit and we see that in reinvesting our resources at the elementary school level,” Seaman said . “We think this is a good, solid budget and sustains the path we have been on the last two or three years. Without the debt service, spending is up less than 1 percent.”

The technology article seeks approval for money to buy new hardware, including iPads, mobile notebook carts, a mobile notebook station and e-book titles for all schools in the district.

Though special education cost increased about $270,000, spending at the high school, middle school and two of the three elementary schools is proposed to decrease.

School Board Races

Six candidates are vying for three School Board seats. Incumbent Heather Irish is running against Richard Madigan for a one-year seat to complete the three-year term of former School Board member Gene Grumman, who resigned in November.

Robert Picard was appointed in January to fill the seat until the March election. Picard is a candidate for one of the two three-year seats along with Rebecca Ferland, Thomas Brothers and Patrick Adrian. Incumbent David Putnam is not seeking re-election.

■ Irish, the School Board vice chairwoman, owns a hair salon, Lucky Cuts. She is completing her first three- year term and chose the one-year seat because her daughter will be a senior next year and Irish said she believes board members with children in the school have a vested interest in serving.

Her priority, if re-elected, is seeing the Stevens High School renovation project through to completion.

“I feel the need to finish what we promised to the voters we would accomplish,” said Irish. “I want to see this project come in on-time and on-budget. That is so important to me.” Irish fought hard to have the School Board use a $324,000 refund from the Local Government Center to offset the tax increase for next year instead of holding it in reserve for the Stevens renovation.

She recalls many voters last year telling her that they believed in the Stevens project and even though some had a spouse out of work and the tax increase would be a burden, they would nonetheless support it.

“I took that to heart,” Irish said. “I will not turn my back on them. I will fight for what we said would be done.” Issues regarding the grading system and data on English and math scores are also on Irish’s priority list.

“I think it is beneficial to have someone on the board with past experience in those areas,” she said.

■ Madigan, 72, is retired following a career in banking.

“I think we need more answers on how things operate,” said Madigan. “The board does not tell people what they need to know about the education of their kids.” If elected, Madigan said he would focus on course offerings, grading and testing.

■ Brothers, 45, works in the insurance industry as a risk consultant.

“I have two children in the district and we pay a lot in taxes so it makes sense for me to be involved in the schools,” said Brothers, who had applied to fill Grumman’s seat.

If elected, Brothers has a couple of ideas he would like to bring to the board: more transparency in the budget process and trying to get parents engaged more with students with respect to their post-secondary school careers .

“Seems there is a lack of transparency in developing the budget,” Brothers said. “I think we could do a better job telling Claremont what it is getting for its dollar.”

He would like to see more comparisons in per pupil spending with other districts.

“If we present that information, I think residents would be more comfortable paying for it,” he said, adding that perhaps the analysis could be done by Stevens students as part of the educational process.

■ Adrian, 42, was also a candidate for Grumman’s seat. He works as an educational assistant in the alternative education program in the Newport School District.

“I want to be more engaged in the Claremont community and I feel the School Board is the place, with my background, best suited for public service,” Adrian said. With special education costs rising to a level about equal to regular instruction, Adrian believes his experience in special education will be an asset to the board.

“We have to ask more questions. I understand state and federal law and can help explain it to the public.”

For example, Adrian said the district has said there are kindergärtners and first-graders next year with special education needs.

“All I have been told is they are coded. We don’t get the details and someone who understands special education can ask the right questions,” he said. Adrian also would like to see more engagement among parents because he has seen firsthand how special education students who have support from parents often succeed.

■ Ferland, 57, taught at Stevens for 25 years and now owns Four Pines Quilting in Claremont. Her goal is to bring more accountability to the board and the district.

“The reason I am running is I believe school is for students, and we are not meeting the needs of the students of the Claremont School district,” said Ferland, adding that she wants to look closely at district policies.

Messages left for Picard, who runs a waste-hauling business, were not returned.

Also on the warrant by petition is an article calling for a tax cap that would require the School Board to present a budget that has no increase from the previous year in the amount to be raised by taxes. Tea Party activist Cynthia Howard, a critic of city and school spending and former School Board member, gathered the signatures for the petition, which requires a 60 percent majority for passage.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com