UNION CITY -- It's a little early for Halloween, but the forum with four New Haven Unified School District board candidates was undeniably haunted Wednesday by the lingering specter of major budget woes.

New Haven's annual budget has been slashed from $114 million in 2008-09 to $91 million in 2012-13, according to district officials. Even scarier, most candidates agreed that if Prop. 30 doesn't pass, New Haven and other cash-strapped districts will have to make even more cuts.

Three incumbents -- Jonas Dino, Michelle Matthews and Michael Ritchie -- and outspoken challenger Nick Fresquez are vying for three open board seats with the hope they can solve the problem.

Ritchie, a marketing consultant who was appointed to the board nearly a year ago, said the district needs to do a better job of communicating with the public about its financial obstacles. He said his specific skill set makes him the best candidate to fill that need. "The board has a combination of talents, but what we don't have is someone like me, with a background in marketing and community organizing," he said.

Ritchie is a board member of two grass-roots groups, the New Haven Schools Foundation and the New Haven Boosters Association. The latter was founded to help fund programs such as music, arts and athletics -- which have been severely reduced in recent years.

He said the board needs to reach out to teachers and district employees to help them prioritize where they should spend their limited resources. "We need to figure out exactly where we need to repair the biggest problems," Ritchie said.

Michelle Matthews, an eligibility worker for Alameda County Social Services, is running for a second term. Matthews said the budget hardships have united the school community. "I have a family mantra: we can either work together or we can suffer together," she said. "That message has been made clear to our district. We can't rely upon outside resources; we have to rely on each other."

Matthews said she is proud of the board's recent accomplishments, such as making all high school students eligible for the AP Honors program, which formerly was filled solely by teacher referrals. "I don't have a bleeding heart; I'm a realist," she said. "But it's ludicrous to tell a child that they cannot achieve something."

At the forum, challenger Nick Fresquez -- a retired AC Transit bus driver -- offered blunt and sometimes bombastic critiques of both the school board and the nation's economic system. Fresquez said students are being unfairly punished with reduced services stemming from a budget crisis fueled by the housing bust and financial scandals tied to banks and Wall Street.

"The trust that's supposed to be built between taxpayers and politicians is not there anymore," he said. "And the trust between teacher and student is not there anymore."

Fresquez said the district's budget will never improve because too many parts of the economic system are rigged, which is denying the funding that the state once provided to schools. "It's the system, not the kids," he said. "I'm selling the American dream. Are you buying?"

Jonas Dino, a former teacher who now works as an education specialist at NASA, said he has maintained high standards as a board member, despite "this weird situation" in which the state's budget crisis has tied down the district's finances.

He said he is proud that the board has tried to ensure that any necessary cuts had minimal effects on the district's children.

Dino -- a board member since 2000 -- also praised his colleagues, the community and the district's labor groups for working together better. "A few years ago, the bargaining units used to yell at me, and we're not yelling anymore," he said, smiling. "That's a success."

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.