TOWNSHEND -- Kelly Garland expected to hear some partisan bickering and political posturing Thursday morning.
But the Leland & Gray Union High School senior instead witnessed what she termed an "insightful" political forum featuring seven candidates for state office.
"They are actually very concerned about what's going on," Garland said after the 90-minute session. "Sometimes you see candidates who are fake, and they seemed very real to me."
Hosted by the school's Civic Leadership Education and Action (also known as CLEA) organization, the gathering featured the usual trappings of a political forum: There were questions from the audience and timed responses from the candidates.
But it also included some unusual moments. At one point, Mary Alice Herbert, a Putney resident running as a Liberty Union Party candidate for Vermont secretary of state, broke into a children's song about traffic lights in response to a question about music education.
The makeup of the candidates' panel also was unique: There was just one representative each for the Republican and Democratic parties, but there were two independents and three Liberty Union candidates.
Herbert belongs to the latter party, which identifies with socialism, and said she enjoys the freedom that comes with a lower-profile political organization.
"It gives you a lot of independence, because you can really say things nobody else will say," she told the crowd.
The questioning opened with a controversial topic -- the continuing battle over Vermont Yankee. State Rep. Richard Marek, D-Newfane, reiterated his party's position by stating flatly that the Vernon nuclear plant "should have been closed."
Not surprisingly, Vernon-based state Republican Rep. Mike Hebert disagreed, saying he is a "strong supporter" of the plant and has toured the facility many times.
"I feel very comfortable with the operation of the plant," Hebert said, while adding that "it's a shame that it's become a political fight."
Seated to Hebert's left, Liberty Union candidates Ian Diamondstone (running for the Brattleboro District 3 state House seat) and Owen Diamondstone-Kohout (running in the Windham 4 state House district) took a much different position.
"My feeling is, the use of nuclear power is criminal," Diamondstone said. "There should be a moratorium on all nuclear power immediately."
Diamondstone-Kohout said he is concerned about the long-term effects of nuclear waste, saying "radiation stays with us forever."
The candidates generally were less than enthusiastic in response to a follow-up question about coal-burning power production.
"Coal is a finite resource, and I think it's important to focus on renewables," said Emmett Dunbar, an independent running for the Windham-Bennington-Windsor state House district.
Dunbar's opponent, independent Tim Goodwin, said "there has been a lot of progress in cutting pollution and making coal safer" but added that coal is not as clean as natural gas.
The panel also was in general agreement when Jane Olmstead, a Leland & Gray social studies teacher, said many local residents and students are being "shortchanged" by a pervasive lack of adequate broadband and cellular coverage.
Marek and others noted that Gov. Peter Shumlin has committed to expanding broadband coverage statewide by the end of 2013 through public-private partnerships.
"I think there is major progress being made," Marek said.
The candidates weighed in on a variety of other issues, including many related to schools:
- Hebert lobbied for more focused education investment to better prepare students "to take advantage of any opportunity" to get a job and stay in Vermont.
- Marek said he does not believe the state's educational funding system can achieve "absolute equity" among schools.
"Nobody has ever come up with an absolutely perfect system, and I don't think anybody ever will," he said.
- Dunbar decried the shortfalls of standardized testing, pointing to his own struggles as a student.
"Some people can't test, and it has nothing to do with their ability . . . to contribute to our society," he said.
That was a response to a question from Garland, who enthusiastically agreed with Dunbar's assessment.
"I know that a lot of students actually don't test well, and I don't believe it actually reflects their ability," Garland said.
Keeping the forum running smoothly were fellow seniors Gia Casella and Alexandra Morrow, both CLEA members. Both are old enough to vote, and both remarked on the discussion's civil tone.
"They really cared about the issues that were important to us," Morrow said.
Casella said CLEA, which started at Brattleboro Union High School, is an activist group that engages in a variety of activities beyond the political arena. For instance, a fair trade fashion show is planned later in the school year.
"It's youth empowerment," Casella said. "It's students expressing their opinions on local and global issues."
Leland & Gray Spanish teacher Jeryl Julian Cisse, who advises the CLEA group, said Thursday's forum may have been the first of its kind at the school.
"I don't know that it was ever done here before," she said. "It was just the idea of, how do we empower our students to learn about the various parties that exist."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.