From the Sentinel & Enterprise
Written by Peter Jasinski
LEOMINSTER - Students got an up-close look at democracy in action Wednesday as Republican state Sen. Dean Tran and City Councilor Sue Chalifoux Zephir, his Democratic challenger, faced off in a Leominster High forum that focused on education.
The student-organized forum, the first meeting between the two candidates for the Worcester-Middlesex Senate seat, showed sharp differences on how public education initiatives should be funded and the merits of the proposed state Fair Share Amendment.
Tran beat Chalifoux Zephir by over 600 votes in a special election last December to fill the seat left vacant when Jennifer Flanagan left to serve on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. The two will share the ballot again in the Nov. 6 general election.
Wednesday's forum featured eight questions ranging from reforming the state's school budgeting formula to free in-state tuition to public colleges.
The Fair Share Amendment, which Democrats estimate would generate $1 billion in additional revenues for public education by putting a 4 percent surtax on income over $1 million, was consistently referenced by Chalifoux Zephir as one way to bring more money into local schools.
Tran argued against this as an option.
"I've heard the term Fair Share Amendment twice now and I want everyone in the audience to know the court deemed it to be unconstitutional," he said, referring to a June ruling by the state's Supreme Judicial Court that the proposed amendment was "not in compliance" with the state Constitution.
Tran would go on to tout his efforts during the most recent legislative session to modernize the state's foundation budget formula, which determines how much districts receive in state funding and has not been updated in 25 years. He also stressed he supports making sure the state funds any educational mandate it puts on districts, listing civics education, accommodations to transgender students, and the ability for schools to explore experimental learning environments as examples.
After the forum, Chalifoux Zephir criticized Tran for saying he supports funding such programs without elaborating how they would be funded.
"You can say that you want to support education, you can say that you support certain things, but where is the revenue source? And I don't hear that at all," she said. "I am going to work very aggressively to find the revenue source to make the significant improvements we need to make."
In response, Tran said after the forum, "We realized $1.1 billion over benchmark and there is a surplus. Right now, the Legislature, including the governor, is making a decision on how to spend that surplus and that surplus could be used toward education."
Overall, tensions did not appear to run high with either candidate as the forum took place, with exchanges between Tran and Chalifoux Zephir staying brief.
The forum did provide some common ground. Both candidates agreed the state's foundation budget formula needs to be reformed. Both spoke in favor of free in-state public college, though Tran specified for only students unable to afford it on their own.
They disagreed on the notion of civics education being a high school graduation requirement, which Chalifoux Zephir was in favor of and Tran opposed.
It was only after the forum, when the two candidates participated in a roundtable discussion with Leominster High's Students for Transparency and Understanding of Municipal Politics (STUMP), that Tran and Chalifoux Zephir began fielding non-education related questions.
Referring to the roughly $29 million in funding he said he lobbied for the senate district this year, Tran told the students, "Things I've done in the last seven months, other legislators would take decades to do."
This was challenged by Chalifoux Zephir, who said much of this funding was bond money that hasn't received final approval.
"It's a wish list. Until the Legislature approves it, it stays a wish list," she said before going on to criticize the $40,000 Tran lobbied for Leominster's annual Johnny Appleseed Festival.
"That was $40,000 for a festival that has always been self-supporting," she said, adding that she would have used the money for local schools. "I would have rather invested that in technology."
Though each candidate was provided the forum's questions in advance, both said they were, and appeared to be, providing answers that weren't being read off prepared statements. Student panelists did ask each candidate unscripted follow-up questions
Preya Patel, an LHS junior and one of the STUMP members who organized the debate, said the format was intended to make sure students were hearing the best possible responses from candidates.
"I would rather they give me a well thought-out response in the span of 90 seconds as opposed to something rash and cliché," she said.
Intended as both a way to expose students to the democratic process and introduce the candidates to LHS students, about 180 of whom are old enough to vote, the debate did give some audience members an indication of which candidate they might support in November.
Though he said he initially expected Tran to outperform in the forum, LHS senior and registered voter Andrew Kos said he had yet to make up his mind.
"I don't think anyone really won. Where is the change? It felt like they were talking to a wall," he said. "I would go for the senator, but I have to look at my other choices."
At 17 years old, LHS senior Maria Belleza is not yet old enough to vote, but did say she felt Tran had done better than Chalifoux Zephir.
"He had energy," she said. "He seemed to know what he was talking about and seemed super comfortable up there."