Fairfield legislators hear constituent concerns at forum
Updated 6:24 pm, Sunday, January 8, 2012
Fairfield's four state legislators prepared for their return to Hartford for the coming General Assembly session by discussing their legislative agendas with constituents at a forum Saturday at the Fairfield Public Library, where they answered questions on education cost sharing, health-care reform, proposed changes to election laws, the state's air quality and the death penalty.
The legislators -- state Sen. John McKinney, R-28, and state Reps. Kim Fawcett, D-133; Brenda Kupchick, R-132, and Tony Hwang, R-134 -- answered questions, shared their positions, and listened to comments about issues important to constituents.
"It helps me to have feedback. It helps guide (me)," Kupchick said, inviting the audience to call or email her.
"If you don't take the time to tell us what's important to you we don't know," Fawcett said.
"We always do this before the session so the legislators can know what our concerns and major issues are," said Charlotte Garrell, of the Fairfield League of Women's Voters, sponsor of the forum. Garrell said the forum has been held for decades. Garrell served as the facilitator and opened the event with a couple of questions before inviting the audience of about 25 people to ask questions of their own.
Tom Flynn, former deputy register of voters in Fairfield, expressed concern about the lack of adequate training for election moderators, particularly those who count absentee ballots. His remarks were prompted by a question to the legislators from Garrell about whether they would support or oppose a constitutional amendment to guarantee "no excuse" absentee ballot use in Connecticut regarding the voters' ability to use the absentee ballot for any reason.
J. Alfred Dunn said Connecticut is a state of steady habits, good and bad. "We can no longer only educate 50 percent of the population," Dunn said, referring to achievement gaps in some communities and even between some schools in the same community. One woman mentioned the disparity between Fairfield's higher performing schools and those whose students do not have the test scores as high, in particular McKinley and Riverfield schools, she said.
"We've come a long way but we haven't come far enough," said Kupchick, whose son attended McKinley School. Kupchick said Connecticut has the highest achievement gap in the nation. "We're number one," she said.
Kupchick, who serves on the legislature's Education Committee, said some "cutting edge, controversial" reform proposals came to the committee level last year but then they disappeared before they came up for discussion or vote. "We can't make change if everybody is not willing to give up something they're used to getting," she said. They may be uncomfortable but they still merit debate, she said.
McKinney told the audience to expect examination of teacher tenure at the upcoming legislative session, but he thinks the performance evaluation should extend to administrators. He said every school that has impressed him had a common denominator: a dynamic principal. He said successful charter schools have also proved that things can be done differently and still achieve tremendous results.
For Hwang, the issue of education is all encompassing. It does not just affect individual students but society as a whole. "Education is an essential part of a (productive) life ... Education is a ticket for people to pursue the American dream," said Hwang, who came to the U.S. as a child. He added that the dramatic gap between the state's haves and have nots takes its toll.
"If those children do not get an adequate education those children become an economic burden to the state," he said. Hwang said the state has to realize, where education cost sharing is concerned, that one size does not fit all. He also feels that teachers, parents and administrators need to instill in students a sense of purpose, a responsibility to do the work. "You give and you expect," he said.
Fawcett said it would help low income students to know that college is within their reach. She said Fairfield University has a program for local students who maintain good grades and graduate, but few of them are aware of it. Sacred Heart University has a similar program, McKinney said.
McKinney tied the state's education to the state's economy, saying a manufacturer in Meriden told legislators he could have hired 40 people, even at the height of the recession, but could not get candidates with the appropriate skills.
On the issue of health care all legislators seemed to agree there should be more emphasis on prevention and wellness. "The idea of wellness is something we should institute statewide," McKinney said.
Legislators were not all on the same page on the issue of the death penalty. "I'm okay with our current law," McKinney said. Hwang said he has been supportive of the death penalty and would rather not abolish it because it would take a tool away from law enforcement and prosecutors.
Kupchick acknowledges it's already an emotionally charged issue "and then you see Dr. (William) Petit" whose family was tortured and murdered in a 2007 home invasion. The two men recently convicted of the crimes sit on Connecticut's death row. "I personally think we should have it," Kupchick said, especially for "heinous and inhumane" crimes.
Fawcett was the lone dissenter. "I have constantly voted to get rid of the death penalty in Connecticut. It's not government's decision ... There is a higher power ... Taking their life is God's job," she said.