By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — With a proposed spending plan firmly in place, attention turned to the three school board candidates running for Niagara-Wheatfield's governing body Wednesday.
Like the 2013-14 budget, set at $62.8 million, voters will determine which two candidates – Lorna Tilley-Peltier, Lori Pittman and Amy Duell (listed by position on the ballot) – will fill two open seats on the board when they vote May 21.
Wednesday, the candidates formally introduced themselves to perspective voters during a half-hour long question-and-answer period. Moderated by Interim Superintendent James Knowles, they discussed taxes, rising costs of the school district and some of the important challenges facing education in the coming years.
"Nobody likes taxes," Tilley-Peltier said. "But one half of the revenue this district receives is taxes. And with state aid being reduced, there's nowhere else for the district to turn. I don't want to see any more programs cut, so I would choose to increase taxes if the district had no other choice."
Each of the candidates made clear the district, going forward, needs to look beyond tax revenues as well. Tilley-Peltier, for example, said the district should investigate the possibility of both receiving a portion of the county's sales tax and getting the state to review its restrictions on pay-to-play, which prohibits districts from putting costs of sports teams on the shoulders of participants.
Duell, who has spent this year on the district's audit committee as a citizen volunteer, said much more attention needs to be paid to the Town of Niagara Industrial Development Agency.
She said the IDA makes decisions concerning taxes which have a great deal of impact on the money the school district receives, including granting Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreements, which can cause some financial hardship to other taxpayers not as fortunate.
Duell also set her sights on some of the district's challenges in the classroom, including the implementation of the common core learning standards and the increase in standardized testing, which has come under fire following grueling English Language Arts and math exams for students in grades 3-8.
"We have some fabulous teachers and dedicated staff members," she said. "We have some concerned parents who want to do the best for their kids. We have taxpayers who continue to contribute. We must manage better, we must get smarter, we must reach out to other districts doing great things and learn from them. We must be creative and vigilant."
Pittman, the only candidate with previous board experience, has spent the entire year filling the seat vacated by former member Michael Brock. She served on the board for four years before abruptly resigning her seat in February 2011.
Working with the current board has given her a renewed sense of purpose as she tries to provide a solid education for her fourth of four children, a 10th grade student.
Some of the district's well-documented financial struggles of the last three years have put the taxpayers in a bind with Pittman among the group which last month considered cutting kindergarten from its curriculum to save money. They decided to eliminate teaching positions instead, but the idea left a lasting impression on the candidate.
"We're here to provide a quality education to our children," she said. "I want to see more teachers in the classroom. I want to bring back the pre-kindergarten program. Bullying is another big concern of mine. But we also need to control spending. There are residents in the district who are on set income. We need to do a better job of pressuring the state."
Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. May 21.Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.