Robert Shelley challenged Lawrence school board candidates Wednesday to get serious about cutting excessive spending.
"Who is going to hold the line?" Shelley asked in the question-and-answer portion of a candidate forum at East Lawrence Center, 1245 E. 15th St.
Shelley, a plumber at Kansas University, said he questioned the district's commitment to frugal operations after the board gave teachers a 5 percent raise last year. State employees like him got no raise.
In response, incumbent Scott Morgan said he would make no apologies for Lawrence teachers' pay increase.
"Public education is so important," he said. "To go cheap on that would be a mistake of monumental proportions."
The board imposed $3.1 million in budget cuts and fee increases to balance the 2002-2003 budget. It's likely additional cuts will be needed in next year's budget.
Candidate Brent Garner said the decision to make targeted program cuts last year forced some of the district's 10,000 students to shoulder more of the burden than others. He said special education took a big hit.
An across-the-board cut would have been fair, Garner said.
Incumbent Mary Loveland said the board had proposed saving $1.4 million annually by consolidating East Heights and Centennial schools.
The school closure is incorporated into the board's $59 million bond for school construction, which is on the April 1 ballot. Under the plan, students at East Heights and Centennial would go to New York and Cordley schools after both are expanded with bond money.
However, the idea of consolidating East Heights -- located two blocks from where the forum took place -- struck a somber note for 13-year-old Alyssa Pena.
Pena, an eighth-grader at Central Junior High School, said closure of East Heights would harm her family. Her mom is raising five children by herself, including four who go to East Heights. Transferring to New York School, which is more than a mile away from her home, would pose transportation problems.
"It will make it hard on a lot of parents," she said.
Candidate Rich Minder, who is among eight of the 13 candidates opposed to the bond and consolidation, said reasons for the district's three-year decline in elementary school enrollment should be studied. The trend is costing the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual state appropriations.
"Let's look at the revenue side as well," Minder said.
Candidate Samuel Gould said the school board should focus more on getting laws changed that limit opportunities for districts to raise taxes for public education.
"The real issue is school funding," he said. "We can't count on the state."
Candidate Leonard Ortiz, a KU instructor and former California high school teacher, said it would be a mistake to skimp on teacher salaries in the quest for efficiency. Teacher salaries are already too low, he said.
"It's unfortunate teachers have become a door mat in our society," he said. "We need to elevate the stature of teachers."
Shelley said he didn't have anything against educators, but he questioned the wisdom of hiring a new principal at Lawrence High School for a salary of $90,000. The district's administrative payroll could be cut by at least 40 percent, he said.