GROTON — Extra chairs had to be brought to the filled meeting room at the Groton Senior Center for the unexpectedly high turnout of the 2015 Groton Candidates Night, sponsored by the Groton Democratic and Republican Town Committees,
The highlighted, contested races include a one-year seat on the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee, for which there are two candidates — Marlena Gilbert and Jon Sjoberg; a three-way race for two three-year seats on the GDRSC sought by incumbent Alison Manugian, Angela Donahue and Peter Cronin; and a three-way race for one seat on the Board of Selectmen — with candidates Jack Petropoulos, incumbent, Art Prest and George Barringer
Peter Cronin said, “I believe that when it comes to education in the town of Groton, we have a spending problem. We’ve experienced a dramatic departure from the previous decade, landing at the bottom of a benchmark list of surrounding towns with a competitively low cost per student ratio. … I have the relevant skills and experience desperately needed — understanding constituent needs, building consensus and developing strategies.”
Angela Donahue said she has been active doing research and data collection for APEX (Advocates for Promoting Educational Excellence), identifying critical issues, and she will continue “on behalf of the district.”
“I have already attended School Committee training in order to hit the ground running if elected,” she said.
Incumbent Alison Manugian has been on the School Committee for six years. “My past behavior is representative of what my future will be,” she said.
“We’ve experienced a budget crisis,” Manugian said, “but we are stabilized today due to financial improvements and increased transparency. I understand the importance of the relations with Dunstable and the implications of our regionalization agreement and my actions will reflect respect for the process.”
One-year candidate Marlena Gilbert, also involved with APEX, said, “I am an advocate promoting educational excellence, as well as a visionary. I don’t stop until I get the job done and that’s how it should be.”
She continued, “I’m done waiting for change. I want to produce it and I want to do it now!”
Her opponent, current member Jon Sjoberg, has served on the School Committee in the past as well.
“I left at a time when I believed the School Committee was running well and could use some new perspectives, but I am returning because I fear that with this year’s election, the possibility exists that very few members will have more than one year of experience.”
Sjoberg focused on the positives of the past several years in the district, stating, “We’ve added technology, added virtual high school classes, and curriculum support that was previously cut.”
The candidates were asked, “One of the most difficult things about being on the committee is consensus support — you can’t make a decision by yourself.”
There were significant variations in answers.
Donahue said, “I would stand by the committee consensus, but I legally have the right to tell my constituents if I disagree with a decision and why.
Jon Sjoberg had a different perspective, saying, “Coming in with your own ideas and listening to others’ ideas will help get to a joint answer.” Where he differed from Donahue was his strong conviction that, “If I disagree strongly with a decision, I will not publicize that outside of the meeting. I feel it is not healthy for the board to go out and voice that disagreement.”
The three remaining candidates appeared to be on the same page, stating the effort they would make for supporting the majority decision, making sure the interest of constituents was well-represented, advocating for those interests and debating them with respect, and hearing out the different perspectives.
Manugian closed by saying, “I never presume that I have a better answer than the group I work with.”
Another question: The school budget is always controversial and in the past decade, school programs have been cut, yet town money was left on the table — why?”
Sjoberg said, “We want to spend money for productive efficient purposes for our students, and for example, we used federal funds to offset healthcare costs. This was a choice made over hiring new staff that we might not be able to support or sustain in following years.”
Manugian said “It is far easier to look back and regret a choice or decision than when you’re in the midst of decision-making. …We do not always receive what the state has promised in their budget, and we are ultimately put in a position of either increasing local taxes or making cuts.”
Cronin said, “We need to work with town officials to secure the resources. The School Committee should not be the entity determining what the towns can and cannot afford or are willing to pay; it should be a (two) townwide discussion and decision.”
BOARD OF SELECTMEN
Now retired, Art Prest said, “I have the time and energy to give back to my community.” He shared his ideas about how to leverage the town’s natural resources to increase revenues.”
He said, “We have a triple-A bond rating although approximately 94 percent of revenues come from residential taxes… The new Groton Inn and the new bicycle shop in the former Center Fire Station could be great anchors.”
He also talked of applying for more grants to get the assistance of experts in economic development and how important it is to get along with fellow board members,
Asked the root of the cause of the conflict with the Board of Selectmen and the town manager,” Prest said, “a lack of trust.”
Petropoulos said, “Having a disagreement is not a problem in and of itself. We need to disagree civilly, all operating in the best interests of the town. We’ve experienced great progress in this area over the past month.”
Barringer focused on communication and the need to be “open and forthright… It doesn’t have to be unanimous, but a majority decision needs to be respected by all board members.”
Asked how they saw the role of the Board of Selectmen with the town manager, Barringer said, “It is a classic manager/employee relationship as it should be, but I’ve witnessed micro-managing and second-guessing. We need to let him do his job.”
Prest said, “I see the town as a $30 million corporation and the taxpayers are the stockholders. The town manager is the CEO and he should carry out the Board of Selectmen’s vision.”
Petropoulos agreed, saying, “The Board of Selectmen should ask the town manager to interact with the (board) as a CEO. We decided to hire a town manager as an unelected person for this role. But the Board of Selectmen is elected, should give him direction, and make sure that appropriateness and process are followed.”
The candidates were asked, “During the December 15 Board of Selectmen meeting, the town manager was given the okay to speak by the chair. He read from a prepared speech, talked about one specific Board of Selectmen’s actions regarding his evaluation. If you were a sitting selectman, how would you respond?”
“I was the subject of this discussion,” said Petropoulos. “I expected fellow members to think about the appropriateness of the town manager’s comments. We need to look out for each other; we need to assure appropriate behavior.”
Barringer said, “The town manager may have gone beyond a reasonable discussion; it should’ve been dealt with as a personnel issue between the BOS who employs him and the town manager.”
Other topics included how to increase economic development in town, the concept of trust and transparency in interacting with one another as selectmen, and the budget — topics about which all three candidates were in general agreement.