BRUNSWICK, Maine — A forum for Brunswick Town Council and School Board candidates ended with tension Tuesday night between School Board incumbent Rich Ellis and challenger Byron Watson.
Seven of nine candidates in Districts 1, 2 and 6 attended the forum hosted by the Brunswick Downtown Association.
School Board District 6 candidate Daniel Hammond Jr., who is challenging incumbent Janet Connors, was not present because of work obligations. Uncontested School Board incumbent Brenda Clough of District 2 was also absent.
Don Kniseley, the forum’s moderator and executive director of Thornton Oaks Retirement Living Community, led questions and then asked for closing statements from board and council candidates.
Watson, a former District 1 School Board representative who was defeated by Ellis in 2010, criticized the board for contributing to consecutive tax increases over the last three years.
“I’m not going to say I would not cut anything fully without looking into all of its merits,” he said, “but the school budget represents nearly 70 percent of the town’s entire budget and that’s a huge sum of money, and my concern is that we get the most bang for our buck for our students.”
To reduce expenditures, Watson said he would want to decrease the School Board’s annual surplus, campaign for legislation to bring in more state subsidies, welcome more tuition-paying students, and collaborate with other districts.
Ellis defended what he called an evaluative budget process and said that he would look to adjust expenditures in proportion to student populations by grade.
“I would say with our current budget, if I felt that there were cuts needed, we would have made those in the budget process this year,” he said. “The budget that we have this year is the budget that will best serve the needs of the school district today.”
Later on, Watson claimed that this year’s municipal budget decreased by 2 percent, but he was corrected by Ellis.
The municipal budget actually increased by 5.4 percent, while the school budget increased by 4.7 percent, but the municipal side’s effect on taxes decreased by nearly 2 percent because of funds used from the town’s surplus.
“This concept of the town budget not increasing, you just need to go to the town budget books to see that’s not the case,” Ellis said.
In his closing remarks, Ellis reminded the audience why he ran in the first place and brought up the controversy Watson caused in 2010, when he was the board chairman, by sending an inappropriate email to former House Speaker Hannah Pingree.
“At the time, when we most needed our School Board to be focused and to be working together to solve the problems caused by (school) consolidation, base closing and a major recession,” Ellis said, “all you could see on TV and in the newspapers were disruptions being caused by my current opponent in this race.”
Watson countered: “My opponent’s talking about moving forward,” he said, “but he’s concerned in here about the past. That’s all you can talk about. ”
Connors said she wants to see increased budget support for behavioral and psychological needs of students. She added that she would not want to make any cuts that could damage the system.
Council candidates, meanwhile, typically stuck to their own goals and intentions for economic development, facilities planning and balancing the budget.
First-time District 6 candidates Alison Harris and Jane Millett spoke about the need to lobby the state, Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, and others to increase state subsidies and pursue projects that benefit the town.
“We have to protect certain townwide institutions like our schools and our infrastructure and public safety,” Harris said, “and I certainly look to areas of town outside of the downtown district to help funds those projects through Brunswick Landing and other developments.”
Millett said she would like the council to be more transparent with facts and figures for various town matters.
If elected, she said she would encourage residents to become more involved in council committee meetings and workshops, where the “nitty gritty work” happens.
Steve Walker, the unopposed candidate in District 2, specifically referenced the town’s plan to rewrite some zoning laws and how the changes should accommodate the town’s 2008 comprehensive plan.
That would include increasing flexibility that landlords and business owners have in the downtown area, he said.
Incumbent Councilor David Watson, in District 1, said he’s staying on, in part, to see through the town’s long-term facilities planning.
“These facilities are going to provide to our community the opportunity to grow that we’ve never had before,” Watson said.