By Matt Sutkoski
None of the seventh and eighth graders at Williston Central School can vote yet, but time flies. Before you know it, they will be 18 years old and will need to brush up on the issues to make good electoral decisions.
They’ve already gotten a good start.
Every election season, Williston Central School students quiz statewide office holders and hopefuls about their positions during a forum at the school. Last Friday, the students got their shots at questioning the 2014 slate of candidates.
It was light at first.
“Let me just say this school rocks,” said Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell as he made his introductory remarks.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne joked that he is “running for eighth grade class president.”
Once things got going, the questions and answers got serious.
Zahanna Branicki started off by asking whether Lt. Gov. Phil Scott’s “Buy local: It’s not just for hippies anymore” campaigning really helps local communities.
Scott replied that if you buy items online from distant retailers, “it’s not your local business. It hurts the local economy.”
Jessica Gagne asked U.S. Rep. Peter Welch how President Obama’s signature health care initiative, the Affordable Care Act, will enhance the economy.
Welch said one of several ways it could help is to make jobs more portable. Before the Affordable Care Act, people often stayed in jobs they were ill-suited for, didn’t like and had little room for advancement in because they had to hang on to the employee-provided health insurance.
With the Affordable Care Act, he said, workers can move on to other, better jobs without fear of losing health insurance coverage.
One question hit close to home for the questioner. Sophie Beliveau said part of her family’s property was taken through eminent domain to make way for the natural gas pipeline project. She asked Sorrell whether it was proper for a Vermont landowner to lose property rights to a national corporation based in New York.
Sorrell responded that eminent domain is a thorough legal process, during which it is determined whether the public benefits from a proposed project before property is seized.
The questions asked during the forum arose from issues raised during civics classes.
Students were each asked to submit three or four questions about candidates’ political positions. Teachers winnowed down the list and two seventh and eighth grade classes chose the 21 questions posed to candidates during the forum.
The event was all about education, and Gov. Peter Shumlin made a point of playing up its importance.
He had to leave the forum early to attend a meeting with federal Environmental Protection Agency officials, but just before leaving, he told students to plan to go to college beyond high school.
“If you don’t go beyond high school, you are sentencing yourself to a low wage job,” he said.
Getting personal, Shumlin recalled his struggles with dyslexia as a child and how the learning disorder made him a poor student. But with hard work and help, he succeeded.
“I want to speak to you who learn differently. If I could in the end become a good student…. you can,” he said.
And on the questions went, for more than an hour. Reagan Dufresne asked Progressive Lt. Gubernatorial candidate Dean Corren about high gas prices in northwestern Vermont.
Corren called for regulations that would force gasoline distributors to give pricing information to the Attorney General’s office, to ensure there is competition that encourages lower prices. “Whenever you talk about it publicly, the discrepancy goes away,” Corren said.
Under questioning from Matt Trifaro, Sorrell said he would fight to maintain Vermont’s GMO labeling law, which requires that food that has been genetically engineered be labeled as such.
“This is just consumer information. That should trump their position that they can’t be forced to disclose what’s in their products,” Sorrell said.
After the forum, Beliveau pronounced it a success. She said it was one thing to research the candidates’ positions, but another to actually hear about them in person. She said the live forum helped her understand the candidates’ thoughts better than just hearing about it on the news.
The Williston Central School has held the forums for the past 18 years.
To see a student-filmed video of the forum, orchestrated by RETN, click here.