Handling of school budget fuels forum for Cape Elizabeth candidates

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CAPE ELIZABETH  — The 11 candidates for Town Council and School Board discussed a variety of topics Wednesday night in a Town Hall forum organized by the high school’s advanced placement U.S. government class.

The four School Board candidates – Heather Altenburg, Bill Gross, Elizabeth Scifres and John Voltz – answered the first round of questions. They are running for three, three-year seats on the board.

When asked about employing and maintaining the best possible school staff, Scifres, a former School Board member, said the School Department should “feel proud of the salaries” it offers, but that morale has been low.

Altenburg said low morale and staff turnover can be addressed by giving teachers the opportunity to express their concerns.

“I think that can change by listening and paying attention,” she said.

Voltz agreed, saying teachers should get more attention because “great schools run on great teachers.”

Gross said one way to create higher job satisfaction for teachers is to let them have more input into the curriculum because teachers will be happier if they “have control over the environment.”

When asked about implementing more alternative paths to learning throughout the schools, as the high school did with its student-driven learning program, all of the candidates said they support it.

“I think that’s essential to providing multiple pathways to learn,” Scifres said.

Voltz said alternative learning adds to the educational experience.

“Being able to get outside the box is a great way to augment our excellent education,” he said.

When asked if the Town Council should work more closely with the School Board during the budget process, the candidates’ answers varied. The question was prompted by the School Board budget being reduced last spring when the Town Council demanded a flat budget.

“It’s completely right and proper for the Town Council to be the one to tax the citizens,” Gross said. He added, “It’d make much more sense” if councilors and the School Board set budget caps at the beginning of the budget process.

Scifres said the experience showed a lack of communication and, in the future, she’d like to see more collaboration between the council and the board. Scifres said she’d like a process where the School Board budget “is looked at seriously by the Town Council, it’s not given a free pass, it’s really given a rigorous inspection, but ultimately being passed along to the voters of this town.”

Voltz agreed that the council and board need to work together more closely.

“It was a mistake for (the Town Council) to be absent from the process,” he said.

Altenburg said earlier communication “would alleviate some of what happened.”

The seven Town Council candidates – incumbent Councilor Jessica Sullivan and challengers Imogene Altznauer, Roger Bishop, Jamie Garvin, Sara Lennon, Ralph Miller and Victoria Volent – answered the second round of questions. They are running for three, three-year seats.

The Town Council candidates were also asked about their views on the School Board budget process.

Miller said councilors should “offer guidance” earlier in the budget process, but ultimately the School Board is able to make more informed decisions about its budget.

Lennon agreed, saying that citizens should vote on the budget put forth by the School Board.

“It baffles me why the council would feel that they need to ever insert themselves in the process,” she said.

Altznauer agreed.

“The town elects the School Board to do a job,” she said. “(Their budget) is their job. The Town Council has other charges.”

Volent and Bishop said there needs to be more communication earlier in the process and Garvin agreed, adding that the final decision should remain with the council.

Sullivan said there’s “always room for communication improvement,” but the Town Council follows the process set forth in the Town Charter, which says councilors can’t intervene in the school budget until the board is done working on it. 

The candidates also discussed what they think the town’s next big expenditure should be. Lennon, Garvin, Altznauer and Sullivan said they’d like to see maintenance and new projects done at Fort Williams Park.

Lennon and Miller said they’d like the town to invest in a town center, but they both acknowledged it would be hard to fund with taxpayer money.

Garvin said he’d also like to see “a more walkable Cape Elizabeth.” Sullivan and Volent agreed, saying more sidewalks need to be built in town.

Bishop said he’d like to see money spent on repairing the infrastructure in town, especially older buildings that need pipe work.

Election day is Nov. 3 and polls will be open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. at Cape Elizabeth High School. Absentee ballots are available on the town website and at Town Hall and are due back by Oct. 29 at 4 p.m.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Cape Elizabeth candidates night on Wednesday, Oct. 21, started with questions for the four School Board candidates: Heather Altenburg, left, and Bill Gross, moderator Natalie Vaughan, Elizabeth Scifres and John Voltz.

The forum concluded with questions for the seven Town Council candidates: Imogene Altznauer, left, Roger Bishop, Jamie Garvin, Sara Lennon, moderators Michael Mills and Alex Mukai, Ralph Miller, Jessica Sullivan, and Victoria Volent.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.