Palmieri, Higgins Square Off at Leominster High Debate
By Peter Jasinski
LEOMINSTER -- Tuesday’s student-organized and education-focused debate at Leominster High School saw incumbent state Rep. Natalie Higgins and Republican challenger Rich Palmieri agree on many public education issues but diverge on how to fund these initiatives they both say are important in local schools.
Higgins and Palmieri were both adamant in their desire to alter the state’s public education funding formula in a way that would divert more money to communities like Leominster. They both said they were opposed to high-stakes testing and the idea of arming teachers to keep schools safer.
“The funny thing is, I don’t think our views on a majority of this stuff are different,” Palmieri remarked after the debate. “I really do believe fundamentally we want the same thing: a good education for children.”
Higgins also acknowledged her and Palmieri’s similar viewpoints, but did point out one crucial difference.
“There’s a lot of agreement, but the place we often disagree on is how to pay for it,” she said. “I hear Rich say over and over again ‘unfunded mandate, unfunded mandate,’ but when the question came for how do you pay for it, he actually never gave an answer.”
Indeed, the phrase unfunded mandate, which are state-ordered educational requirements schools have to follow but aren’t given additional funding to pay for, was recurring theme in Palmieri’s answers to the nine questions he was asked Tuesday, as well as several follow-up questions from the student moderators.
He referenced them when answering a question about eliminating the MCAS as a graduation requirement and later blamed such mandates in three subsequent questions, saying they had prevented Leominster schools from having the money to offer more foreign language and civics classes and alternative learning environments for students.
Though he said he was in favor of making sure students had more access to such programming, and the even more expensive task of amending the state’s public education funding formula, Palmieri offered little explanation as to how he thought this should all be paid for.
When asked what steps she would take to reform educational funding in the state, Higgins mentioned the proposed Faire Share Amendment, which Democrats estimate would generate an additional $1 billion for public schools by putting a 4 percent surtax on incomes over $1 million.
Palmieiri warned against the amendment, saying that it could later be elevated to as much as 10 percent by legislators without any input from the public.
“It’s not the right way to go about it,” he said. “We need to bring in revenue, we need to bring in money, but we can’t target tax. It doesn’t work.”
Higgins would later remark after the debate that there are alternative ways for the state to bring in new money like the proposed 1 percent tax on college endowments over $1 billion that Higgins said would raise $550 million for the state.
“We have alternatives that aren’t going to put pressures on middle class families, working class families, or seniors,” she said. “We could talk about other cool loopholes I would like to close, like how in Massachusetts you don’t pay taxes when you buy an airplane but you pay taxes when you buy a car. Who’s benefiting from that? No one in Leominster.”
The debate, which was almost solely attended by members of the high school’s senior class, ran for about an hour and did give some students of voting age a better idea of who they plan to support at the polls next month.
LHS senior Teddy Housser said he thought Higgins had been more prepared for the debate, but plans to vote for Palmieri.
“She seemed more ready, but I thought his arguments related to me better,” he said. “It wasn’t anything in particular, but I did think a lot of her arguments were well put-together.”
Fellow senior Robert Davis said he’s not old enough to vote yet, but said he thought Higgins had performed the strongest.
“I feel like Natalie Higgins looked more prepared to answer these questions, but with the last one about whether teachers should have guns, I thought Mr. Palmieri’s answer was more in-depth,” said Davis.
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