DRACUT -- It was the overriding theme of Candidates Night.

The School Committee's proposed $2.9 million override of Proposition 2 1/2 to fund the School District's 2014 budget quickly became the focal point of debate at the annual Dracut Candidates Night forum, held Wednesday night in the Dracut High library.

While all three candidates vying for two School Committee seats, incumbents Michael McNamara and Mike Miles, and challenger Betsy Murphy, responded to moderators Anne Ziaja and Dracut High senior Zach Durkin that each plans to campaign hard in support of the override at Town Meeting in June and in the July special election, the five selectmen candidates who are competing for two seats were sharply divided on the override issue.

The three challengers in the selectmen's race, candidates Tony Archinski, Tami Dristiliaris and Gil Nason, declared their strong support of the override request. However, both incumbent selectmen seeking re-election, Chairwoman Cathy Richardson and Selectman George Malliaros, said though they highly value education and don't deny the need for the additional school funding requested by the School Committee, they had to weigh more heavily the average Dracut taxpayer's inability to afford a $300 tax hike.

"The unemployment rate in Dracut is 6 percent; there are also people who lost their jobs and have given up looking and who are underemployed," said Richardson, who pointed out it was her idea to get the selectmen to meet jointly with the School Committee three times to attempt to resolve the school funding crisis.


Malliaros also stuck to his position that a $2.9 million override to fund the school district's operational budget was too much to ask of Dracut taxpayers. Malliaros also issued a warning to town residents to "beware of these people putting out statistics" that paint Dracut as among the most poorly funded public school systems in Massachusetts.

Lifelong Dracut resident and attorney Gil Nason said though he's staunch fiscal conservative, he supports an override in this instance "one-time only," due to the dire financial straits the school district finds itself in.

"We have to fix the problem. I don't see any other choice at this point but to give them the money," said Nason. "The way the town has been run for the past 10 years, we have no choice. We cannot afford to have our school district remain in the bottom three percent in the state. We have a great police department and fire department. But we have cut back on schools for too long and our students are suffering."

In her answer to the Proposition 2 1/2 override question, Dristiliaris told the audience that any selectmen candidate who claims to hold education as a priority ought to prove it by declaring their support publicly for the override.

"Per pupil spending in Dracut is seriously insufficient and has been a problem for a long time," said Dristiliaris, a registered nurse, attorney and school parents who is making her first run for office. "We should put it on the ballot and let the voters decide."

Archinski, a retired 32-year Dracut police officer, described the override question as the "lightning rod" of the selectmen's campaign. "I am in favor of putting the override question on the ballot. But before it comes to a vote there are two fiscal experts we have hired (Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone and Town Manager Dennis Piendak), who I would like to see go into a room and come out with a solution....

"Before I make up my mind on how I feel about the (override) question I want to know, will it buy books, hire teachers? There are a lot of questions to be answered."

The forum allotted two minutes each for the candidates' opening and closing statements, and included a half-dozen questions other than on the override issue, including what type of new town manager the candidates would like to see hired in the search for the successor to Piendak, who is retiring.

"I want someone who is a complete political outsider to this town," said Nason. "Let's not give this person a job just because he knows somebody... I also want someone who has a passion. You have to really care about what you want to do. And someone whose own finances are in order."

Malliaros said communication skills are of primary importance in a new town manager, and pointed to Piendak as being exemplary in that regard.

"He or she must have a high degree of professionalism," said Malliaros. "Politics in Dracut historically has been known as a blood sport. How many town managers could survive a political environment like Dracut's (as Piendak has for 27 years)?"

Follow John Collins on Twitter at johncolowellsun.