Three vie for two seats on Tupper Lake school board
TUPPER LAKE – Voters Tuesday will get a chance to pick two school board members from three potential candidates.
School board President Dan Mansfield and board member Dawn Hughes are both running for re-election, and Trish Anrig is challenging them for a seat.
The Enterprise sat down with each candidate last week for a profile. The candidates are listed in alphabetical order by last name.
This is Anrig’s second time running for school board. She ran unsuccessfully last year.
She said she wants to run for two reasons: She wants to improve communication between the board and the community, and she is concerned about the district’s budget.
It concerned her that Mansfield read a statement at a November school board meeting that prohibited people from asking questions during the public comment period.
“When you ask a question in a public forum, everyone gets to hear the answer,” Anrig said.
She said that if she’s interested in the answers to questions, there are probably other people who are, too.
Anrig said there are some areas of communication where the district has improved. She asked several times for the contact information of the board members to be posted on the district’s website, and she asked that school board meetings be listed in the district calendar online. Both of those things have happened.
“So there have been some improvements,” Anrig said.
In terms of the budget, Anrig said she’s worried that the board is borrowing $500,000 from the following year’s budget to reduce the tax levy in the 2013-14 school budget. She said she doesn’t see the district’s funding problems getting any better in future years, and borrowing from future years only delays the issue and makes future problems even worse.
She said the proposed 8.35 percent increase in the 2013-14 tax levy would be something she could live with, “but it’s not the whole picture.”
District officials have argued that there is no room in the budget for more cuts that wouldn’t take away programming for students, but Anrig said she believes there are cuts to be made from the budget that wouldn’t affect the district’s instructional programs.
She said she saw the administration starting its budget work this year with the basic structure of past school budgets and then trimming around the edges.
“When you have a $1.4 million increase, that’s not going to do it,” Anrig said. “You have to look at a new model.
“When you’re in corporate America, you don’t have the option of increasing your revenue just by asking for more money. What they do is they look at middle management, they look at where are the big dollars; where can we consolidate jobs?”
It would be a good idea to take a hard look at all non-classroom positions in the district next year, she said, noting that board member Jane Whitmore suggested that at a recent board meeting.
“Right idea, but it should’ve been done last year,” Anrig said. “What I’m seeing is the planning for this school budget should’ve started some time ago.”
She questioned why the district owns the Tupper Lake Civic Center. When the topic was brought up at a board meeting earlier this year, district Superintendent Seth McGowan talked about forming a task force to find a way to make the facility bring revenue into the district, but Anrig noted that there hasn’t been any action plan or implementation of ideas from that discussed at board meetings since then.
“Is it really the school district that should be trying to make the Civic Center pay?” Anrig asked. “Is that really the role of school administration and school boards – to run a private enterprise?”
She said she believes the town would be more fit to owning and operating the Civic Center than the school district.
Anrig said in general she thinks budgeting should be done with more of an eye to the future. The district can easily look at local birth rates and project the school population of future years, so the administration should plan accordingly by eliminating jobs through attrition rather than layoffs, she said.
Hughes is running for her third term on the school board.
“I’m a person that I like to finish what I started,” Hughes said. “I guess I feel I have a pretty level head and feel that I can contribute.”
She said it has taken her a few years to get to know her job on the board, and now that she’s familiar with it, she believes she is in a good place to continue with her work.
Hughes said she tried to listen to taxpayers as well as the administration to make the fairest decisions.
She said it was difficult a few years ago when the board made the decision to lay off about a quarter of the district’s instructional staff, but she’s proud that the district has been able to keep taxes relatively low over the last few years.
“Our stand has always been to keep the taxes as low as possible,” Hughes said.
In recent years, the district’s auditors have started to say that maybe that wasn’t the best thing to do, because now the district is having a difficult time staying afloat. But she said it’s what the board felt it needed to do during the recent recession.
She said it wasn’t hard for her to decide to run again, even though being an unpaid school board member is sometimes difficult. She said she has always tried to face challenges, “and that it is.
“It’s not a job that people want to do, but it’s a needed job,” Hughes said. “Somebody has to do it.”
She said a lot of people have opinions on what could be done to run the district better, but as a board member, it’s not always so easy because she has to keep all sides in mind when making a decision.
There have been some letters to the editor in the Enterprise and Tupper Lake Free Press in recent weeks criticizing the district for its spending, and the Free Press editorialized recently advising Tupper Lake voters to vote against the school budget. Hughes said she has learned not to take criticism personally.
She said she didn’t feel a need to address the criticisms specifically because she said McGowan did a good job of that at the last school board meeting.
“He addressed what needed to be addressed in order for the taxpayers to make a good decision,” Hughes said.
Hughes disagrees with Anrig’s opinion that there isn’t good communication between the board and the community. Hughes said that if Anrig is elected, she’ll find that she’ll get calls at home and people stopping her on the street and in the grocery store to give their opinions or ask questions.
She said people don’t understand the school board’s role, with the administration running the schools and the board overseeing that to ensure for taxpayers that things are being done the best way they can be.
“Some people think that sitting on the board, you have more power than you do,” Hughes said.
She noted that employee contracts often don’t give the board a lot of wiggle room. She has been vocal about calling for teachers to pay more into their health insurance, and she said she hopes that they have more realistic expectations the next time they come to the negotiation table. She said she has been a state union employee for 34 years, but she contributes more to her health insurance than the teachers do.
She said she hopes residents vote in support of the school budget.
“The district really has done the best they can do without taking away from the students, and that is what it’s really all about,” Hughes said.
Mansfield was appointed to the school board 10 years ago, and he’s served three full terms since then.
He said that as a firm believer in democracy, he feels it’s his duty to give back to the community by serving on the board. He said he wishes more people would get involved, noting that this year is the first time his seat on the board has been challenged.
“I personally would encourage more people to run, more people to be involved,” Mansfield said. “If you don’t let it be too daunting, it’s not too daunting.”
He called his time on the board one of the best learning opportunities he’s ever had, with chances to learn about business as well as federal and state governments and the way they interact with the local community.
He said that amid all the troubles the district is going through right now, it’s helpful to have people on the board who are familiar with the problems.
During his time on the board, the thing he’s proudest of is always having kept an open mind and listening to other members of the board, the community and members of the district before making decisions.
Like Hughes, Mansfield’s worst experience on the board was also the significant round of layoffs several years ago. He said he doesn’t regret the decision, but it was difficult.
Calling himself a fiscal conservative, Mansfield said he agrees with the concept of the state’s tax cap, but the problem is that state officials never did anything to get rid of mandates that make it difficult for municipalities and school boards to stay within that cap. Part of being a board member is understanding what’s in the board’s control, and there’s only so much it can do when there are so many government restrictions, he said.
He said he’s learning to not be as nervous about speaking and reading in public.
Mansfield said he doesn’t mind the recent criticism of the district. He said he thinks it’s good that people are weighing in and getting involved, and he said sometimes the public should be saying it disagrees with what the district is doing. He said it’s tough to agree to an 8.35 percent tax levy increase, as the district has proposed in its 2013-14 budget.
“I understand their positions,” Mansfield said.
Mansfield disagreed with Anrig that there are communication problems between the board and the community. He said he’d like to see more people come to meetings and give their opinions during the comment period. He said he tries to keep things as open as possible while still giving the board enough time in a meeting to do its job.
He said the only reason the board restricted people from asking questions during meetings is that there is no way for the board and administration to be prepared to provide answers to all the types of questions people ask. If someone has a question about data, Mansfield said the district is trying to encourage people to use freedom of information requests.
He also said he doesn’t want to engage in arguments during school board meetings. He said that wouldn’t set a good example for the students of the district.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.