Long River students immerse themselves in civics lesson

Sung Soo Devine asks state representatives Vickie Nardello and Len Greene a question at Long River Middle School Dec. 1.

PROSPECT — Eighth grade students at Long River Middle School had a lot of suggestions for their state representatives.

State representatives Vickie Nardello (D-Prospect) and Len Greene (R-Beacon Falls) visited the middle school last week to respond to letters from teacher Steve Ruhl’s eighth grade history class.

“I was surprised at the level of knowledge these kids had,” said Green, noting students had suggestions for everything from economic development to recreation to taxes and transportation.

Among the suggestions students had for their representatives were reinstating the trolley system in Beacon Falls and building a mall.

Ruhl said students wrote letters as part of a lesson on government.

“It’s a way for them to see how their state government works,” Ruhl said.

Nardello and Greene told the students that many of their letters concerned local problems that the state doesn’t have jurisdiction over, a mistake they said many people make.

For example, many of the students wanted to build sidewalks in their towns — a problem Greene can relate to.

Greene told the students a story of being hit by a car on Burton Road in Beacon Falls when he was in eighth grade.

State representatives Len Greene (R-Beacon Falls), left, and Vickie Nardello (D-Prospect) talk with eighth grade history students at Long River Middle School Dec. 1.

Nardello agreed with Greene that sidewalks are a good idea to promote health and safety, but there are many barriers to building them including cost and liability.

They suggested the students take their concerns to their local Board of Selectmen in Beacon Falls and Town Council in Prospect.

“I hope that you’re going to let me know how you made out,” Nardello said.

Greene said a lot of the letters he received asked for local amenities including a skate park and community pool.

“It was obvious the kids were concerned about not having something to do,” Greene said. “It’s good to see that they’re paying attention.”

Nardello said the most interesting letter she got was from a student who suggested making penalties for smoking marijuana stricter, but only in the town of Prospect so that other people in the state would see Prospect as a safer community and want to move there.

One student asked the representatives what their opinion was on the Naugatuck River Greenway, which is currently under construction in Beacon Falls.

Nardello said it was an excellent idea to improve the community. Greene agreed, saying it would bring more people downtown and improve business.

“We want to try to increase traffic to our downtown area,” Greene said.

Another student asked whether the representatives approved of higher taxes on the wealthy.

Nardello responded that Connecticut has increased tax rates on the wealthy.

“I’ve always believe in the progressive tax,” Nardello said.

Greene, however, disagreed, saying its tough for anyone to pay higher taxes right now.

Even though the two legislators, who hark from opposite sides of the aisle, disagreed on some issues, they said they work together for the betterment of the state.

They said the legislature is not as acrimonious as other state’s and the federal government.

“You have to find the middle of the road where most of us can live with it,” Nardello said.

Some ideas to solve problems are not as simple as they seem to government outsiders, the representatives told the students.

One student suggested building tollbooths on state roads as a way to lower taxes.

Greene said the initial investment for such a project would be millions of dollars, but it could eventually reduce taxes if the tolls were exacted on enough drivers from out of state versus in-state drivers.

Nardello pointed out another hurdle to the idea was that the federal government gives Connecticut more money for highways because the state doesn’t have tollbooths. If the state built tollbooths, it may have to give some of that money up.

“Nothing is ever as simple as it seems,” Nardello said.

Besides looking for answers on certain issues, the students wanted to know why their representatives got into politics.

Nardello said she was drawn in through one major issue. While working as a dental hygienist in Hartford, she noticed that many children had very poor dental health and she decided to do something about it.

After lobbying to get more health services to poor children, Nardello decided to run for office and make changes from the inside.

In her first election, Nardello lost by a slim margin, but decided to run again when the incumbent announced his retirement. On her second try, she won by 168 votes and has been in office for 18 years.

“I still love what I do,” Nardello said.

As the son of a state representative, Greene said he was steeped in politics from an early age. He helped with his father’s campaigns and became involved with a number of issues. Greene won his first term in office last November by 99 votes.

“Don’t be afraid to get involved,” Greene advised the middle school students.

He said that despite stereotypes, most politicians are good people.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s really rewarding work.”