Saturday September 29, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Fireworks over campaign debates have erupted between Lee Scott Laugenour, the 4th Berkshire District Green Rainbow Party candidate, and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who represents 20 communities, mostly in South Berkshire.

Even though both have agreed to a radio debate on Vox Communication's WSBS (AM 860, FM 94.1) on Nov. 1 at 9 a.m., Laugenour is still fuming over ground rules for an Oct. 22 forum for students and faculty at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

As Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon pointed out, the periodic "Arts and Ideas" forum has always been closed to outside media and the general public because it's a civics lesson for students.

Laugenour has stated that he doesn't have time to take part in a political discussion closed to news coverage two weeks before the election. Pignatelli has accepted the invitation.

"It's an opportunity to talk in front of the students," said Dillon. "On multiple levels, it's unfortunate and problematic that Scott said he didn't have time."

Dillon emphasized that "schools are the foundation of democracy and students are prospective voters."

He added that Monument Mountain's auditorium, seating up to 500 people, is available to anyone who wants to sponsor a full-fledged candidates' debate, with the school district absorbing the cost. "We'd be happy to host it," he said.

Pignatelli charged on Friday that Laugenour is "so desperate for attention and to get his name in the paper because he has no other way to get his message out. He's trying to create trouble for a well-intentioned event to teach civics."

Dillon confirmed that students would record their forum on video and make it available to CTSB public-access viewers via Time Warner Cable.

"We need to get more civics into the schools," Pignatelli said. "I go into the schools on a regular basis. Getting students excited about the process is so important."

"I have no problems debating this guy," he added, "but it depends on the format. I don't need to go into a debate where the deck is stacked against me. I wouldn't go to one organized by the Green Rainbow Party."

Monument Mountain Re gional High School Principal Marianne Young explained that the Arts and Ideas Forum on Oct. 22 was conceived by social studies teacher Holly Troiano, who agreed to reconsider media and public access after Laugenour raised objections.

"But she decided to keep it for the students," Young said. "Scott got the impression that maybe this could be a formal debate open to the public and the press, but that was never the intention. This is an equal opportunity for candidates to meet with students."

Laugenour said on Friday that he has not responded officially to the invitation because his priority is to find a sponsor for a public debate at the school.

He also contended that school officials had not been "up front" with him about the ground rules for the student-only forum since, he stated, Troiano had originally de scribed the event to him verbally as an informal debate.

"I will gladly be a guest for a student forum in the future," Laugenour said. "I am a friend of public education, of teachers and students. Two weeks before Election Day, however, when both candidates are rightly focused on getting their messages out to voters, is not a good time to close the door to the press for an event such as this."

Young emphasized that it's important for students to take responsibility for the discussion.

"It helps them develop their voice and their inquiries but it keeps adults from taking over the forum and dominating the questioning. It's really to support our kids and give them the chance to exercise their own leadership."

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto