NAACP hosts first major post-primary candidate forum to discuss schools, opioid crisis, local economy
PITTSFIELD — The hunt for November got underway Wednesday night as the four Berkshire state legislative hopefuls gathered for a candidates forum — three in person and one electronically.
Incumbent Tricia Farley-Bouvier and challenger Christopher Connell are vying for the 3rd Berkshire District representative seat on Nov. 8. The other local political match-up pits Adam Hinds against Christine Canning, the winner succeeding Berkshire Senator Benjamin B. Downing, who isn't seeking re-election.
All but Canning physically showed up to the forum at Conte Community School sponsored by the Berkshire County Chapter of the NAACP. Canning, of Lanesborough, was home recovering from shingles and telecommuted through a video chat hook-up, Canning was able to interact with moderator Will Singleton and hear the other candidates responses to a series of questions.
Public education dominated a good portion of the nearly two-hour event, the focus on charter schools and minority student performance in the Pittsfield Public Schools.
Three of the four candidates clearly stated they oppose Question 2, the state referendum that would lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed across the commonwealth.
Canning seemed neutral, doubting more would open in the Berkshires, which has one: Berkshire Arts and Technology in Adams. She said alternatives to traditional public education are another choice for parents and they seem to make a difference.
"Charter schools actually help students," she said.
Viewed as a financial drain on established school districts, the other three said they will vote against Question 2.
"[Charter] funding is taking way too much money away from public schools," Farley-Bouvier said. "We don't need to lift the cap by 12 new schools per year."
"Let's make our public schools right, first," added Connell.
Hinds sees Berkshire support lacking for lifting the cap.
"I don't hear clamoring for more charter schools," he said.
The candidate responses were varied — one surprising the audience — to the question of how to narrow the achievement gap between African-American students and others in the Pittsfield Public Schools.
Hinds cited the students' socio-economic situation as a glaring reason African-American students, as a whole, are doing better in the classroom.
"What income parents are earning affects a child's learning and we need to address that," he said.
Canning says it starts with the educators.
"A lot of times it has to do with the ignorance of the teachers," she said. "We have to look at where the kids are coming from."
Farley-Bouvier praised the summer programs in place to keep city youth connected with learning and school-year assistance such as the home visiting program.
"Some parents need the tools to help their children," she said.
Connell admitted he couldn't immediately answer the question, drawing some under the breath remarks from the parents watching in the Conte gymnasium.
"I need to give it more thought. I can't do a plan in three minutes," he said referring to the allotted time for the response.
From the Berkshires to Cape Cod, reaction to the opioid crisis has focused on getting addicts help, but Singleton asked what about the drug dealers.
Canning felt the court system has been too lenient with some who come before a judge.
"Tell me how we had a 92-bag arrest of heroin in Pittsfield and the guy was let go with probation," she said.
Given the rising death rate during the crisis, Farley-Bouvier wants tougher sentencing.
"If dealers are responsible for the deaths, they need to be held accountable," she said.
Connell agreed that some sentences are not in sync with the severity of some drug crimes, but getting them off the street is a challenge as it sometimes takes months to build up a case in order to raid a drug dealer's residence.
"[Police] can't just go in and bust down a door on hearsay," he noted.
Hinds felt it important to focus on the need for treating drug addiction as a disease.
"I will make sure insurance companies help pay for treatment," he said.
Other issues discussed included racial diversity among the Pittsfield city government and school system workforce.
Farley-Bouvier and Connell reactivating the Pittsfield Affirmative Action Advisory Committee has helped move the city in the right direction, but Canning said that wasn't good enough.
Hinds called for ensuring minority hiring is part of local and state government contracts with the private sector.
The matter of economic development had Canning and Connell calling for better training and education to improve the quality of the Berkshire workforce. Hinds also advocated for upgrading the roads, bridges and other aspects of the area's infrastructure.
If better paying jobs are to make a comeback in the city and Berkshires, Farley-Bouvier wants added investment in existing and new manufacturing companies.
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233