Comerford, Spilka focus on inequality on area listening tour

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 11, 2018, by Dusty Christensen

It’s no surprise that residents of western Massachusetts often feel ignored by Beacon Hill. But on Tuesday, at least, one of Beacon Hill’s top lawmakers came to western Massachusetts.

Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, visited the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester Senate District on Tuesday, where she met with local leaders as part of a one-day listening tour focused on “addressing inequality and creating lasting opportunity for all.”

“As Senate president in particular, in a lot of ways I feel I have the opportunity to work for the whole state,” Spilka told a crowd of leaders representing important sectors of the economy in the Pioneer Valley gathered at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building.

Jo Comerford, the district’s state senator-elect, organized Spilka’s visit to the region. In addition to Northampton, the two made stops at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield to talk with service providers, and at Greenfield Community College to talk with education officials, including Northampton’s school superintendent and the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Spilka took the gavel as Massachusetts Senate president two months after Comerford’s predecessor, Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, resigned from the post in the wake of an ethics report that found that he had failed to protect other senators from his husband.

Comerford said one of the trip’s goals was to ensure that Spilka has “a sense of the full range of service delivery systems, concerns, needs, hopes, opportunities of western Massachusetts.”

“She knows that we care a lot about having our fair share from the state,” Comerford said. “This is a good immediate uplift to our relationship with leadership in the Statehouse.”

During her speech, Spilka was sure to note that she has only taken three such trips since she took over as Senate president in July: one to Springfield, another to Pittsfield and Tuesday’s trip.

At the Northampton Community Arts Trust, Spilka heard speeches from several local business and nonprofit leaders, who all highlighted several key areas of need for the local economy. Among their concerns were public transportation, affordable housing and addressing climate change.

Claire Chang, a partner at the company Solar Store of Greenfield, spoke about how her business grew quickly after several key green-energy policies were implemented in 2008 under then-Gov. Deval Patrick. She said the chaos that climate change is causing is at the center of her work, and urged Spilka and Comerford to push Gov. Charlie Baker to take further action to help the green economy grow.

“It’s been phenomenal,” Chang said of her company’s growth every single year since 2008. “Though I have to admit, it has not all been straight up … There have certainly been ups and downs.”

Philip Korman, executive director of the local nonprofit Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, also spoke about how climate change is creating great uncertainty for local farms.

Stories Korman said he’s hearing from farmers after a historically wet autumn often sound similar: “I have farmed for 40 years and I have no idea what I’m going to do this spring.”

Spilka, for her part, said she was one of the original co-sponsors of the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008, which set economy-side reduction goals for greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

“There is a sense of urgency,” she said of addressing climate change.

A lack of affordable housing was a concern raised by several speakers, including Alex Kennedy, the executive director of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, and Joanne Campbell, the executive director of the Valley Community Development Corp.

Speakers also raised public transit as a service that is currently underfunded, and which could do everything from decreasing inequality in the region and fighting climate change to helping keep college and university students in the Valley after graduation.

Spilka said funding public transit is a priority of hers. She pointed to legislation she had authored creating the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority and allowing other communities in her district to join a different regional transit authority, bringing bus service to that area for the first time.

“That’s one thing that I have fought for is increasing funding,” she said of regional transit authorities.

Spilka said that increased education funding was her springboard into politics, having previously served as chairwoman of the Ashland School Committee. And it was education that was the primary topic at one of her earlier stops in the day.

At the Greenfield Community College session, Spilka heard from 22-year veteran teacher Mary Cowhey from Northampton’s Jackson Street Elementary School.

“We teach every single child who comes to us in our public school, and we do it damn well,” Cowhey said. “The reality is that for decades we have been asked to do this work on the cheap, and we want all of you to know we can’t do it on the cheap. We need to fully fund our public schools. The need is desperate, it’s immediate, it cannot wait.”

The Senate passed legislation to fix the state’s school funding formula, Cowhey said, adding there’s a need to “push” the House to do likewise. “We absolutely must fix the foundation formula to fully fund our public schools.”

Northampton School Superintendent John Provost also spoke, echoing many of the same concerns voiced by the other educators. He said he worried about a shift to a “higher efficiency” educational model that doesn’t maximize student potential.

“When resources get tight, it’s what we default to because it’s a more efficient model of education,” Provost said. “But it’s not what our students need. I don’t think anyone at this table wants to educate our students by moving them from box to box to box in large groups within our schools.”

As the day ended back in Northampton, Spilka said that there’s no substitute for meeting directly with residents across the state like she did Tuesday. But when it comes to pushing for legislation that is needed in western Massachusetts, she’s going to rely on Comerford and the other senators from the region to inform her.

“They have a great pulse on their districts,” she said.

Comerford said that showing off what makes her district special, and what its residents need, was the reason she brought Spilka out to the area.

“I wanted her to come home and see my home as I see it,” she said.

Staff writer Richie Davis contributed to this report.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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