SHEFFIELD, Mass. — Most fourth-graders don't know who their state senator is, but thanks to a visit from Suzanne Bump, pupils at Undermountain Elementary School know who their auditor is and what she does at the State House.
At the request of teacher Danielle Forrest and her fourth-grade class, Bump, who was sworn in to office just three months ago, visited the school on Monday morning hoping to answer students' questions about government, money and, of course, politics.
To her surprise, the Great Barrington resident said many of the students were very much in tune with what has happening in their homes and their state.
"When I first came to the State House I had to explain to many of the legislators what exactly was the job of the auditor," she said. "I'm surprised that a lot of these kids already seem to know."
In a packed lunchroom, Bump expressed the importance of "helping people" through politics, using the story of "Stone Fox" (by John Reynolds Gardiner) to illustrate the importance of paying taxes within the larger scheme of providing public services. In the story, 10-year-old Willie enters a dogsled race so that he can win the $500 needed to pay the taxes on his ailing grandfather's farm. If he doesn't win, he risks losing the farm.
Of course, at the expense of one dog, Willie prevails. However, the message, according to Bump, is not that he won, but that he knew the necessity of public contribution.
"Nobody told Willie to ignore the taxes or not to pay them," Bump reminded the students. "The government has to pay for things and that's what the taxes are used for. The reason you pay your taxes is to help."
When asked what was the purpose of taxes, most students were well aware of the role that state dollars play in their lives and the everyday life of their parents and classmates.
"You need to pay taxes to keep your land and so that that money goes to the town so they can fix potholes and help the homeless," said one fifth-grader. "And you need to pay them on time."
In fact, most of the students, when asked about the current state of the economy, were well aware of the recession and its impact on their families and friends.
"Maybe some of you have had a family member or someone you know lose their job recently," Bump said. "Lots of people are concerned about the economy and people are focused on where their money goes and if that money is being well-spent. It's my job to make sure that all of that money is accounted for and that the people using that money play by the rules when they spend it. I also measure what we can get for our money and how effective these programs are. This is something of a new idea for the state government."
Money was not the only line item that the former state labor secretary addressed. She asked the students if they knew what college was and how many of them were going. While most hands went up, she lingered on the topic of education and future job prospects in a struggling economy.
"There are very few good jobs for a high school graduate," she said. "You've got to go to school after high school, even if that means two years learning a trade or to four years at a university. Education is the most important thing you can do right now if you want to get a job that will support yourself and the family you will have."
The audience had an opportunity to turn the tables and offer feedback (and many, many questions) to the recently-elected auditor. One fourth-grade student tackled the budget, asking how recent deep cuts would affect the state and the school.
"We have a state budget of about $30 billion a year," she said. "I don't make the cuts but I have to look at the impact of those cuts, and I have to ask why they cut a particular program and take a long-term look at the government and what programs were successful and which have been cut and why. I have 260 people working for me; four of them work with me at the Statehouse. The most frustrating thing for me is how hard it is to do something new in government. We have an amazingly complex computer system and I have a lot of work to do over the next four years."
After hearing the responsibilities of her elected official, fourth-grader Hope Aragi of Sheffield said she "learned a lot about money and government."
"That's a lot to keep track of," Hope said. "I wouldn't want her job, especially not now."
Whether they want the job or not, according to Forrest, meeting the auditor is an opportunity to learn.
"These kids are definitely not immune to the word 'budget,'" Forrest said. "I think they need exposure to these types of jobs and what people in government have to do on a daily basis, especially now. They know what's going on because their parents talk about it, and whether we know it or not, they are listening."