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Mayoral candidates tackle city education, infrastructure

Public school system and economic development take center stage as mayoral race heats up

With the September primary on the horizon, mayoral candidates discussed plans to boost Providence’s economy, reduce violence, improve the public school system and support city libraries at the Knight Memorial Library Wednesday night.

Sponsored by the Providence Community Library and moderated by the League of Women Voters, the forum was the first in a series of three “Meet the Candidates” mayoral forums highlighting neighborhood issues such as schools, libraries and public safety, according to the organization’s website.

The mayoral forum included Democratic candidates City Council President Michael Solomon, former Providence Water Supply Board Chairman Brett Smiley, former Housing Court Judge Jorge Elorza, Businessman Lorne Adrain and fourth-time mayoral candidate Chris Young, as well as Republican candidate Daniel Harrop ’76 MD’79. The candidates will compete for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mayor Angel Taveras’s seat.

While there was a clear consensus that investment in early childhood education and school infrastructure are imperative for tackling Rhode Island’s poorly-rated education system and low literacy scores, candidates offered different approaches to improving the public school system.

Smiley declared his support for universal pre-Kindergarten in the city and higher level Spanish courses for native Spanish speakers in public schools. Harrop expressed his support for an elected school board — in place of the current system in which the mayor appoints members to the board ­—  and cited the merits of charter schools and subsidies for private schools.

Solomon said he supports improvements to school transportation and pledged to invest $250 million in school infrastructure if elected. Young pledged to offer increased vocational training in public schools and to make the process of obtaining GEDs more accessible to dropouts. Elorza criticized the underutilization of public schools for educational and community use during evenings and summers and stressed the importance of selecting high-achieving principals to enhance school performance.

“It’s the economy, stupid,” Adrain said in one of his responses, quoting Bill Clinton. Smiley and Elorza addressed the city’s economic issues by pledging to create jobs through education, and Harrop suggested streamlined government services are necessary to foster Providence’s business climate.

Harrop also vied not to raise taxes and emphasized the need to “reopen negotiations with unions and pensions” in the interest of the city’s financial stability.

Reaffirming their stances from the Martin Luther King Jr. Day forum hosted by the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in late January, candidates spoke of the merits of teaching nonviolence and discussed the symbiotic relationship between safety, education and economic prosperity.

Solomon introduced the initiative to expand the police force back to its pre-recession levels.

Smiley reiterated his pledge to institute a supplemental sales tax of 10 percent on guns and ammunitions and to use the revenue to promote the practice of nonviolence, while Elorza repeated his commitment to match the diversity of the police force to that of the city’s population.

In response to an audience member’s question, candidates revealed their positions on the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana. Smiley said he supported legalizing and taxing the sale of marijuana to adults and discussed the virtues of alternative sentencing. Adrain, Solomon and Elorza declared themselves undecided, citing both merits and drawbacks of decriminalization and legalization.

Solomon added that he would like to “take a step back and see what happens over the next few years in states that have legalized it.”

Elorza said he believes “adults should be able to do as they wish in private” but expressed concern over the possibility of increased teenage marijuana usage. Harrop said  he supports the “decriminalization of almost all substances” and mentioned that he has “prescribed marijuana to his patients.” Young said he was previously in favor of decriminalization and legalization but has now reversed his standpoint.

The forum provided Spanish translation services to those who requested them. The PCL’s subsequent mayoral forums will take place May 22nd and June 12th at the Rochambeau Library and Wanskuck Library.

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