Souhegan conflict shows in races

AMHERST – An ongoing conflict about Souhegan High School’s cost and quality is reflected in races for the School Board and the district moderator this year. There are six people running for two positions on the board, and three of them are members of a citizens group called Working for Great Schools. The group maintains that Amherst and Mont Vernon aren’t getting enough back in quality to justify the school’s rising costs. At a candidates forum last week, one of those participating was former Selectman Mike Akillian, who is running against Peter Maresco for a one-year seat on the board, and is a founder of the group. The group has done a lot of research, he said, about the "underlying facts and realities of the school." School officials’ defense that comparing school districts isn’t valid is a "lame excuse," Akillian said. Souhegan isn’t sufficiently rigorous, and its community support is diminishing as reflected by votes on school budgets, he said. Margaret McCabe, another group member who is running for a threeyear seat on the board, said budgets are going up while enrollment is declining. One of her main goals is to have Souhegan appear on U.S. News and World Reports’ list of the best high schools. "We are not competing in the real estate market," she said, noting Bedford has grown by 11 percent in the last five years. Maresco said his two children graduated from Souhegan. "Yes, we can be more efficient," he said, "but I have seen firsthand what a great education" the school provides. Steve Coughlan, the incumbent in the four-way race for two three-year board seats, acknowledged the cost per pupil is higher than that of surrounding towns and has been "going hog wild" increasing Advanced Placement courses and advanced language offerings. But he said he isn’t a "change candidate," and the school has to be "very thoughtful" when it attempts to cut back. "Any curriculum changes need to be integrated across the entire system," Coughlan said. Working for Great Schools maintains that teachers’ salary and benefit packages are among the highest in the state, and that the schools have more personnel per student than most towns. Lopsided allocation of resources, they say on their website, is the reason the town can’t afford to maintain its many miles of roads, finish construction of the fire house or build an adequate police station. In a written statement, Dwayne Purvis, who is also running for the threeyear board seat, said he wants to prevent a special interest group from "dismantling our schools." And Bob Brewster, the fourth candidate for the three-year position, said he is a group member and will keep an open mind. Stacie Kiczuk, a candidate for district moderator, said she would have done a better job than incumbent Addie Hutchison in keeping the recent Deliberative Session orderly and respectful. Hutchison, however, said she would have done nothing differently and that everyone had time to speak. The meeting had a record turnout and was marked by noisy boos and applause. "Perhaps I could have scolded people," she said, ‘but nothing got out of hand." Kiczuk is a member of Working for Great Schools. Hutchison said her goal in seeking the moderator’s position is to appoint members of the district’s Finance Committee. Kiczuk responded that she has no agenda and would balance the goals of all of the School District’s stakeholders. There is no contest for the Amherst School Board. Elizabeth Kuzsma and Galen Tremblay seek to replace Peg Bennett and Lucienne Foulks, who are retiring. The fourth annual candidates forum was hosted by the southern New Hampshire branch of the American Association of University Women in Town Hall. Town and school elections will be held Tuesday, March 8.