The idea of joining the two school districts of the only two towns in the county is not new, and in the past has been a bone of contention between the two small towns just nine miles apart as each sought to hold onto its own identity.
Eight people are running for the Ridgway school board. Running for one two-year term are Joseph Alaimo, Valerie Hill and Steve Larivee. Competing for three four-year seats are Dana Hawk, Bart Skalla, Jeff Synowic, Julie Wesseling, and Sue Williamson.
The candidates each made opening statements and then answered pre-submitted questions from the audience read by Mary Feirn, moderator for the event, sponsored by Women in Support of Education.
Many questions concerned teacher salaries, employee retention and how to save money in a declining economy.
Hill first brought up working more closely with Ouray to save money.
“We need to be creative,” she said. “We have a community nine miles away but don’t share any programs except sports. It seems silly not to pool resources.”
Larimer agreed that “sharing with the neighboring district” would be a good thing, but added, “some areas are complicated.”
Hawk said she’s lived in Ridgway for 26 years and never understood why there are two school districts in such a small county.
“If they were combined, we could save money,” she said.
The candidates were asked how they would prioritize expenditures in a budget crunch. Alaimo said the school district needs to do a better job pursuing grants, and that locals should fight budget cuts in the state legislature.
Hill suggested that not all classes need to be small and Larimer said the school board should look to the community for help. He said the budget for buses should be stretched “or even eliminated if we have to.”
Skalla said he didn’t know where cuts should be made, but the first step would be to gather data and not make decisions based on emotion.
Wesseling said input from the community is vital in making budget cuts and Hawk said raises or cuts should be across the board, from janitors to teachers.
“Straight across the board raises are not realistic,” he said, “Raises should be merit based. No one moved here to get rich, but teachers need a decent wage and affordable housing.”
All of the candidates put teacher pay as their highest priority in the school district budget. Larivee said fine arts must remain in the schools and Hawk said her second priority, after teacher pay, would be extra-curricular activities, primarily sports.
Skalla said summer education is important because kids lose a lot of learning over the summer, and Synowic said it’s important that the school facilities are up to state code.
Williamson said that “the little people,” such as janitors, also deserve decent pay, and she favored combining with Ouray.
“Combining resources would save money, but with only one superintendent, someone would lose their job,” she said.
The election will be by mail for the Nov. 3 election, school board president Kara Mueller told the crowd of about 60 at the Ridgway Community Center. Ballots must be received by mail or in person by 7 p.m. on Election Day, she said.