Donna Perry: A Reason to Believe in RI

Thursday, December 22, 2011


One of the most vivid reminders of the magic of this season happened to me in a simple, unexpectedly touching moment last week as I sat in the audience of the holiday concert for one of my children in our local public school. Since public schools naturally stage non-religious holiday music programs with little of the Christmas music zeal I experienced in my long ago parochial school childhood, I was expecting a pleasant but generic holiday music evening.

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The band and orchestra players, (including one especially good flutist) did a fabulous job. Then came the student chorus singers. Somewhere during their sweet harmonizing on the refrains of the “Charlie Brown ChristmasSong”, I saw the best in our public school system and I felt proud to be a part of it. More than that, it made me realize why it’s worth fighting to make it better. Rhode Island has many school systems of which we can be not only be proud but encouraged that a local public education in this state can produce favorable results.

In fact, as we approach year’s end, there is substantial new evidence in test scores and other measurements that the visionary work of the state’s education reformers, working in slowly improving collaborations with school unions, is producing substantial improvement across the board. The current charter school battles notwithstanding, the state’s often tortured school system politics seems to have at last simmered down and tangible progress is at hand.

Ending on a High Note

The state also is ending the year on a remarkable high note of achievement in the area of its singular fiscal challenge. National recognition and praise for the landmark overhaul of the state’s troubled pension system continues to pour in. It was no small achievement to take on the state’s central debt problem, plow through a painstakingly complex and bitterly controversial public debate to rein in the system, and finally, secure legislative passage. But that’s exactly what Treasurer Gina Raimondo did with the support of Governor Chafee, and now both of them are pledging to tackle the troubled municipal pension plans. It all represents a sea change of will and accomplishment from where the state stood a few short years ago and this new determination to tackle the state’s toughest fiscal problems speaks well for the chance of a Rhode Island comeback.

In economic development, the state’s prolonged anemic condition remains a huge concern, but it would be insincere to say the state did not make gains for improving opportunity for growth this year. Despite the concerning circumstances of the crafting of the legislation creating the 195 Land development parcels and its governing commission authority, at least that prime downtown Providence site is now operating with an organizational plan.

Furthermore, Governor Chafee has shown leadership in an important area of economic development this year by spearheading several out of state informational trips to learn how certain types of medical center complexes and other robust health sector related companies that are thriving in other cities could be established here.One hopes he continues that focus into 2012 and is instructing his administrative staff to create the roadmap it will require to import such enterprises to the state.

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Speaking of roadmaps, the state has made great strides over the past year in some areas of transportation but is lacking in others. The dominant improvement, after years of struggle, will become a reality once the present and likely final stand-off between the F.A.A. and the Warwick City Council over the extension of the runway at Green Airport comes to a resolution. Airport authorities have long contended the extension, allowing for better access to West Coast flights, represents an important piece in the state’s economic growth opportunities. Furthermore, the connecting rail line system into Warwick, and now Wickford will only serve to enhance the regional commuting options for those living in the state’s West Bay and more southern suburbs, especially to jobs in greater Boston. Though those projects were begun long before the current Chafee administration, the rail system connection to Green Airport and the extension into the more southern part of the state represents a bright spot in development of our transportation options.

A Mixed Picture

Though it was a year where pension battle headlines crowded out most other news, Rhode Islanders should recognize the state turned some very important corners in 2011 that hold out hope for slowly improving conditions for 2012. Yes we still have among the highest jobless rates in the nation. Yes we still have an all too high foreclosure rate and despite our nationally recognized fiscal improvement through the pension reform law, we continue to have severe fiscal local problems, as witnessed by Tuesday’s state takeover of the finances of East Providence.

Sure, it’s a mixed picture. Yet in this, the season of believing, maybe we can finish up 2011 with the faintest hope that maybe, just maybe, Rhode Island can make a comeback.

Just ask the kids if you don’t believe it.

“Christmas time is here
Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes of love and dreams to spare.
Christmas time is here
We’ll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year……”

Donna Perry is a Communications Consultant to RISC.

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