Friday, June 8, 2001
Fargo provides frank assessment of state policies and leadership
"I am doubly glad to be here," said Senator Susan Fargo to a full house after the May 24 annual meeting of Carlisle Communications Inc., which publishes the Mosquito. Speaking as a state senator in her third term, but also recalling her roots as a former editor of a small town newspaper, Fargo brought the corridors of Beacon Hill to Carlisle.
Rather than present a prepared speech, Fargo treated the evening as a Clintonesque town meeting and fielded questions from the by-and-large friendly audience. In this milieu, the senator frankly assessed the limitations of the state political leadership and her efforts at coalition building while touching on topics of local concern.
Education reform needs reform
"Public education is the keystone in our democracy," said Fargo, a former teacher, who has made education one of her priority issues. When asked about the future of education reform, Fargo replied, "Something happened on the way from good intentions to implementation." The senator admitted that the law has helped struggling school systems bring their budgets up to a foundation level, but she is against the high stakes nature of the standardized tests introduced by education reform (the MCAS). "We should not subject high school students to a failure situation that will affect them the rest of their life," she said. Even the president of the company that holds the $70 million contract to administer the tests has spoken out against high stakes testing, Fargo added.
Because education reform is such a volatile issue at the State House, Fargo has filed what she termed a moderate bill in an attempt to soften the impact of the tests. The bill would exempt from the tests special education students, vocational students and students with English as a second language. The hearing on the bill was snowed out and has not yet been rescheduled. With a jab at the Senate and House leaders who control the fate of bills, Fargo mused, "I'm wondering why."
When asked about the prospects of higher state funding for special education, Fargo also pointed the finger at the party leadership. Even though Massachusetts funds only 20 percent of special education costs while almost all other states fund 50 percent, the House and Senate have been polarized on increasing state assistance. Calling the number of children who currently need special education an "epidemic that is not going to get better," Fargo said, "For the present, we are stuck with a state leadership that won't fund special education but will spend $100 million on a new Red Sox stadium." The senator suggested that the state should put a hold on all large capital projects until the special education funding crisis is improved.
On a related issue, Fargo also expressed concern about the treatment of school nurses. She noted that the role of the school nurse has changed dramatically in the recent past. "School nurses used to dispense bandaids. Now they have to treat too many students who are dealing with the stresses of modern schools." Though Fargo supported and won a raise for trained nurses, who had generally been paid less than custodians, she lamented, "This is still a bandaid approach."
Land use issues
Speaking just a few days after the town election where the town approved the Community Preservation Act, Fargo was asked to clarify the process of obtaining the state matching funds. For the initial few years after passage of the CPA, funds will be set aside from additional real estate recording fees to match funds raised by cities and towns through a tax surcharge, Fargo explained. Fargo questioned the long-term commitment at the State House to continue to use these fees for the initial purpose.
Additionally, because the matching funds are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, Fargo believes that the legislation works better for cities that can decide to purchase property more quickly than towns that typically need to call a Special Town Meeting for such purpose. "If Cambridge moves in with a big project, they will win out," foretold Fargo. Fargo said that she preferred the idea of a land bank funded with a real estate transfer tax. This idea, which worked great on Nantucket, said Fargo, was killed by the powerful realtors lobby.
Fargo was also asked what she felt would happen with the more than 30 bills filed which would amend the state comprehensive permit statute, Chapter 40B. This is the so-called Anti-Snob Zoning law enacted in the late sixties to deter municipalities from using zoning hurdles as a barrier to access to the community. Now, noted Fargo, the law is increasingly used as a club by developers to push through large projects which create an undue strain on a locality's infrastructure. Fargo said that she has signed on to some of the bills that would preserve a greater measure of local control.
How to improve state government
With all the talk about entrenched state leadership, Fargo was asked what townspeople could do to help improve state government. Fargo said that she is against term limits because there is already rapid turnover in the legislature, albeit not at the top. She strongly supports the Clean Elections Law, however, which she believes will encourage more people, including Republicans, to run because they will have access to more resources. Keying in to her media-heavy audience, Fargo noted that the Globe and Herald are also in favor of clean elections, but she added somewhat cynically, "Of course, this would mean more paid advertising."
After nearly five years on Beacon Hill, Fargo said she gets frustrated by the institutional mentality, often shared by the big city newspapers, which she described as still an old boy network dominated by back room politics. She candidly referred to House Speaker Thomas Finneran as a "despot" who dealt out committee assignments, in part, on the basis of how much cooperation he could expect on his agenda.
"The State House needs more of a suburban mentality," Fargo concluded. "More people who are used to Town Meeting democracy."
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