Metro, News

In race for City Hall, school funding takes center stage

Candidates discuss solutions for teacher union contracts, school budget deficit

By and
Staff Writer and Senior Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2018

The final week in the race for Providence mayor has highlighted key differences between the candidates in their stances on the Providence school system and potential funding solutions. Incumbent Democratic candidate Jorge Elorza, who bested his two primary challengers in early September, will face two Independent candidates, Dianne “Dee Dee” Witman and Jeffrey Lemire, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Elorza ran his first successful mayoral campaign in 2014, beating former Providence mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. and Republican Daniel Harrop, according to the Rhode Island Board of Elections. Witman, who has never run for public office before, previously sat on the city commission for the Providence Public Building Authority and was a political fundraiser, according to her campaign website. Lemire, who has lived in Providence for the past eight years, works in construction and has not previously run for public office.

With less than a week to go before the general election, the candidates have raised over $1 million in total. Only Elorza and Witman have reported raising funds to the elections board. Witman’s campaign coffers sit at $439,000, about $200,000 behind Elorza’s. Witman is the first to present a serious fundraising challenge to Elorza, who out-raised his primary challengers by large amounts, The Herald previously reported.

In total, there have been three debates for the mayor’s race, covering a host of issues. Front and center of these debates has been the Providence public school system. The three candidates have presented vastly different visions for Providence’s future. Providence schools face major infrastructure issues, school teachers have been without a contract since August 2017 and the bus drivers union recently ended an 11-day strike, according to WPRI.

Teachers union contract issues have still not been settled. Elorza expressed his frustration with the negotiation tactics the teachers union has used, such as the union’s decision to have all members under work-to-rule status, where employees only perform the basic duties required by their employer. “I think it’s a position they’ve taken intentionally because it hurts children,” Elorza said during the Oct. 9 debate.

In an interview with The Herald, Witman stressed the importance of sitting down and talking with the teachers unions and other civil servant unions in the city. “They are your civil workers, they’re on the front line,” she said. “How do you dare … not talk with them? You can be sure I would.”

Witman also pointed to Elorza’s handling of the firefighters union as another strike against his ability to work with unions. “He was really caught with his pants down on that one. That was failed leadership,” she said.

Lemire voiced his admiration for the teachers of Providence. It’s “the toughest job in the city,” he told The Herald. Lemire said he did not have a solution to settle a contract with the teachers union. “I have no idea what these teachers want. We don’t know!”

Providence schools also face financial troubles. Elorza recently wrote a letter to Providence citizens stating that the School Department will face a $37 million deficit over the next five years because of federal funding cuts and other decreases in funding, according to the Providence Journal. “That means really dramatic cuts that we’re going to have to make in our School Department over the coming years,” he said in the Oct. 9 debate.

Witman echoed that sentiment. “We have a population that has more needs than any other city in Rhode Island … in terms of funding,” she said. She added that solving this issue would require undoing some of the decisions made by the Elorza administration, and the city would have “to do more with less.”

An independent report commissioned by the School Building Authority at the Rhode Island Department of Education estimated $627 million was necessary to bring R.I. schools up to the standard of “warm, safe and dry.” The report said it would take a further $1.59 billion to bring the schools to the highest standards outlined in the assessment.

Elorza has suggested leasing the city’s Water Supply Board, which was valued at $404.2 million in 2017, The Herald previously reported. The money would be used to help ease the financial troubles facing schools and help pay for the city’s pension liabilities, which have exceeded $1 billion. “Unless we do something, the city’s going to die a slow … and painful death, so something has to be done,” he said in the Oct. 9 debate. The National Resource Network, which advises cities on how to address economic issues, suggested that Providence sell or lease city assets to cure its budget woes.

Leasing the Water Supply Board would be authorized through the Municipal Water Supply Systems Transactions Act, which would allow the board to contract with other public and private entities without oversight from the R.I. Public Utilities Commission.

“We believe that monetization of our water system is a viable and sustainable solution,” wrote Victor Morente, press secretary for the office of the mayor, in an email to The Herald.

Witman agrees that the city should be allowed to profit off of the Water Supply Board, but selling the board outright is “not going to happen” if she were to be elected, she said. Witman said she and her campaign were thinking of inventive ways to address the issue, but that she was “not at liberty” to explain them. “We sell our water to other cities,” she said. “We sell it, but we’re not allowed to make a profit on it.”

Lemire, however, was staunchly opposed to monetizing the Water Supply Board. “We can’t sell it,” he said. “If I’m elected mayor, everybody that’s in the Providence Water Department on the Board of Directors is fired.”

Another potential solution for Providence schools’ funding disparities lies in Rhode Island referendum question one and local Providence referendum question four. Question one would allow the state to issue a quarter of a billion dollars in bonds to fuel school infrastructure spending across the state. Question four would allow the city of Providence to issue up to $160 million in bonds for school improvements for fiscal years 2019-24.

Witman was reluctant to support the passage of question one. “I hope a lot of money goes to Providence, (but) I’m not sure it will,” she said. She stressed the importance of supporting schools statewide. Despite her reservations about question one, she supports referendum question four. “We certainly need to do (it) for city schools.”

Lemire was not in favor of the local Providence referendum. “We don’t need to borrow any money,” he said. Lemire added that he worries the money would leave the state through contract hiring outside the city of Providence or even the state. “The money’s going to go so fast you aren’t even going to realize it,” he said.

Elorza could not be reached for comment on this particular issue.

Megan Geoghegan, communications director for RIDE, recognized the impact that improving school building quality would have on school culture and student performance. After “a complete and accurate evaluation of the state of our school buildings, … we believe this once-in-a-generation investment is necessary for our students,” she wrote in an email to The Herald. Geoghegan said that RIDE played a supporting role in drafting the language used in question one.

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