Ten candidates for the TUSD Governing Board talked at a Monday night forum about the district's looming $17 million budget deficit, special-needs students and working cooperatively with teachers and staff members.

The November election has drawn 12 candidates for three seats on the board of the Tucson Unified School District, the city's largest.

One of the big issues facing the district is a projected budget shortfall for next school year. The district is looking at several options to deal with it, including school closures, increasing class sizes, pay cuts, staff reductions and the elimination of various programs.

During a 90-minute forum hosted by the Saguaro Eastside Democrats, here is what the candidates said on some of the topics brought up by audience members.

One of the main topics at the forum was the budget deficit.

Candidate Don Cotton, 65, a parent of two TUSD students, said the district has to start reducing overhead and consolidating its administration, which he believes is top-heavy.

"This is an embarrassment," he said of the deficit.

Cotton also favored cutting the use of consultants and looking at ways to reduce energy costs.

Ralph Ellinwood, 68, a criminal-defense attorney who has a daughter who teaches in TUSD, said he will not vote on a budget that reduces teacher salaries. He also said he supports putting more money into the classrooms.

He said he favors cutting "the fat" in administration, adding that with a $433 million budget, administrators can find $17 million to cut.

Kristel Ann Foster, 41, a Sunnyside Unified School District educator who has taught education students at the University of Arizona, said the budget needs to be studied closely to see exactly what money the district has in its coffers.

Foster said she has heard the district's chief financial officer, Yousef Awwad, say at a TUSD community forum that if voters do not approve Proposition 204, the extension of the temporary 1-cent-per-dollar state sales tax hike to fund education, then TUSD will face a $40 million deficit, not a $17 million shortage.

However, she said Superintendent John Pedicone stated on a radio talk show that the district would face no budget deficit if Proposition 204 passes.

"I am questioning what the real deficit is, and is this only a scare tactic?" Foster said. "We need to be honest about the taxpayers' money."

Another question from the audience concerned TUSD graduating students who aren't prepared for college and how the district addresses educating special-needs students.

Candidate Cam Juárez, 40, a program coordinator for the county's community development and neighborhood reinvestment department, said the district needs a community advisory board made up of parents who have special-needs children. "Those parents are the experts," Juárez said. "We need to invest in a full spectrum of services for special-needs children."

Juárez said he supports revenue-generating options to pay for these needed services, such as the district developing early learning centers for ages 3 to 5 and charging parents on a sliding-fee scale for the service, rather than having parents seek privately operated preschools.

Board incumbent Alexandre B. Sugiyama, 44, an economics lecturer at the UA, said as a university professor he teaches about 300 students a semester and some special-needs students have come forth for help.

"You must have trained and skilled teachers (at the elementary level) who can identify these students, and then you must have parental consent to work with these students," Sugiyama said.

Robert Medler, 29, vice president of government affairs for the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said teachers must have the resources in the classroom to identify special-needs children, and those children must be followed to make sure they are receiving services.

The candidates were asked about how they would work in a cooperative fashion with teachers and staffers.

Incumbent Mark Stegeman, 56, an economics professor at the UA, said he favors more communication with representatives of the teachers union, the Tucson Education Association, to find out what is needed at the schools on issues affecting teachers and students.

Stegeman also said he believes school site councils should have more control over what takes place at their schools. Stegeman said he believes the site councils should have more control over curriculum and their school's budgets.

Candidate John Hunnicutt, 66, a certified public accountant, said local control must go back to the schools.

He said most teachers will follow the chain of command for needs at their schools before bringing their issue to a board member.

Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, 57, a self-employed landscaper who has a son in a TUSD middle school, said she puts a lot of importance on teachers and support personnel at schools. "If we don't keep our teachers happy, we don't keep our students happy," Putnam-Hidalgo said.

She said teacher pay, working conditions, small class size and professional development are key issues for well-functioning schools. "I wish teachers felt more comfortable speaking to board members, and that they believed their speech and their jobs were protected," Putnam-Hidalgo said.

Board incumbent Miguel Cuevas, 25, a native Tucsonan and a graduate of Cholla Magnet High School, said he meets with teachers and staffers and has round-table discussions, or "cafecitos"- meetings over coffee - to hear their views.

"We need to include communication with everyone to make the best decisions for every school," Cuevas said.

Candidates Menelik Bakari and Debe Campos-Fleenor did not attend the forum.

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at 573-4104 or cduarte@azstarnet.com