PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Mayor Jorge Elorza laid out a vision for improved streets, increased development and public safety in his annual State of the City address Monday, while insisting the state takeover of Providence Public Schools will bring the change he could not bring himself.
“For decades, we’ve known that our schools have been failing our kids,” Elorza said in prepared remarks. “To be sure, we’ve made attempts as a city, both in my administration and in prior ones, but we never managed to break through and bring about the change that was needed.”
Elorza, a Democrat, spoke about a “New Providence,” contrasting it with the Providence of his childhood, when he said “finances were mismanaged, where neighborhood parks went untended, and where infrastructure was neglected.”
Among the topics he touched upon: his Great Streets plan to reshape city streets into “urban trails” with more bike lanes; the opening of the Providence Pedestrian Bridge, which the City Council has proposed renaming after the late civil rights leader Michael Van Leesten; improvements to city parks and green spaces; increased development of apartment buildings and businesses; and combating climate change with initiatives like the plastic bag ban and energy-efficient streetlights.
Elorza’s second term – which is also his last, due to term limits – has so far been dominated by headlines about the struggling city schools, starting with the Johns Hopkins report last summer. The state took control of the school district in November and state-appointed superintendent Harrison Peters starts next week. Elorza did not fight the takeover, instead insisting that state officials would have more legal power than he to make big changes – including to the teachers union contract.
The union protested Elorza’s State of the City address in 2018 – an election year – when he was locked in a contract dispute with the teachers. The deal that was later approved is set to expire this summer, but the union will now negotiate with state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green instead of the mayor.
Elorza brought up the past protests in his speech Monday night.
“I stood in this very room and was shouted down, but I never abandoned my belief that we needed a wholesale transformation of our district,” Elorza said. “And that is what led us down the path of this great and necessary undertaking in our public schools.”
Elorza pointed to other city programming for youth that is separate from the state-controlled school department, including recreation centers, inexpensive summer camps, after-school programs and libraries.
“We know that many of our kids, through no fault of their own, are already behind by the time they start kindergarten,” he said. “Early learning programs are expensive and beyond the reach of so many of our families. Because of that, we have set a goal of providing universal pre-K so that every child is ready to learn by the age of five. And before this term is up, we will achieve that goal.”
He also recapped some of the existing plans for rebuilding aging school buildings through a voter-approved school bond, and improving other city properties with the five-year capital improvement plan.
Elorza made only brief mention of the city’s massive long-term unfunded pension and retiree health care liabilities, and did not provide any specifics for fixing it. (His previous plan to monetize the water supply proved extremely unpopular.)
“Our finances have improved, giving us the flexibility to address our long-term needs,” Elorza said.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Elorza said his office is working on a pension reform package to submit to the City Council.
“There are a number of things that are on the table,” Elorza said. “We’ve looked at everything from going to a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, as something that we should look at. There are some options around retirement that we’ve talked about in the past removing, some of them would require legislation.”
In a prepared response to the speech, the Providence Republican Party called on the mayor to reform the pension system by raising the retirement age to 60, reducing some of the highest-paying pensions, and switching to IRAs or 401(k) accounts instead of pensions in the future.
“This is money that is not available to fix potholes, hire enough police, repair schools, maintain parks, and to just hold down property taxes,” GOP chairs David Talan and William Ricci wrote in the response.
The State of the City address is separate from the mayor’s budget address delivered in April. He typically makes more specific proposals in the latter speech, after his tax-and-spending plan is finished and ready to submit to the City Council.
“I just want to make sure that while we’re thinking about the ‘New Providence,’ we’re not forgetting about the old Providence, and the people that have been here all along suffering,” Council President Sabina Matos said in reaction to the speech. She mentioned Olneyville, a neighborhood she represents, which she called “one of the hottest places” to be after years of struggle.
“What we have to be careful of is that while we’re welcoming the new people coming in, we’re not displacing the people that were there when no one else wanted to be there,” Matos said.