AUBURN — Education arose as one of the most important issues for Auburn residents at a community discussion Tuesday night, both as the right thing to do for students and as a way to encourage economic growth.
"I would like to see Auburn be an education center of excellence to attract people to Auburn," Fern Street resident Bob Armstrong said. "There's a demographic shift going on and as it does, the challenge for us is to attract more young people and to keep the ones we have. To keep our city growing and rolling along, as more than just a place where old people retire, you have to have a Class A, No. 1 educational system."
The problem, according to City Councilor Leroy Walker, is paying for it.
"I think everyone wants education to be No. 1, but we just can't afford the education they're trying to sell us," Walker said. "It's why people voted against taxes this year. It wasn't that people don't want a good education. They just can't afford it."
Moderator Mary Sylvester said that was one of the biggest dilemmas identified by residents Tuesday at the first of seven community conversations over the next few weeks. Residents didn't have to solve that question, but they ought to discuss it and reach consensus, she said.
"This is a missing piece here we need to notice," Sylvester said. "How do we do that? We build more people into the community dialog."
Local business owner Jim Wellehan said he'd rather see money spent on education than on economic development.
"If we spend our money on education, we will attract businesses and people who want to live in our area," Wellehan said. "We can't waste money on (tax incentives)."
Safety also came up as a big issue, with resident April Joyce saying she wanted safe, clean parks for her children.
"That's a huge missing piece, when we are talking about a sense of community, especially when you are talking about kids and young people and going to do things," she said.
The Community Conversations, meetings to find out what residents think about the community, will continue next week.
Meetings are scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 24, at Park Avenue School; Wednesday, Sept. 25, at East Auburn Community School; Tuesday, Oct. 1, at the Danville Grange; Wednesday, Oct. 2, at Sherwood Heights Elementary School; Tuesday, Oct. 8, at the Auburn Public Library; and Tuesday, Oct. 15, at Washburn Elementary School.
Each meeting is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. and to be two hours and 30 minutes long — a 30-minute social period, followed by two hours of discussion. Chairs were set up in a circle, encouraging residents and neighbors to talk and interact.
Each meeting begins with the same question: "Given the difficult decisions that our community must face and the reality that property tax increases must be minimized, what are our priorities for Auburn’s future?"