By ETHAN HARTLEY -- Students just beginning their collegiate careers got a crash course in local political problem solving after being tasked to solve real city issues.
Students just beginning their collegiate careers got a crash course in local political problem solving, as an Introduction to Political Science class from Johnson & Wales University (JWU) was tasked with presenting possible solutions to four real-life issues in Warwick in front of Mayor Scott Avedisian last Wednesday.
Avedisian had visited the classroom of Emily Lynch, JWU assistant professor of political science, at the beginning of the fall semester to give students a handful of possible topics to research and subsequently come up with their own suggestions for how the city could implement strategies to move forward.
Apparently not afraid of a challenge, the four groups of students chose to tackle further development within the Apponaug Circulator, the ongoing sewer construction projects, implementing a better city-wide streetlight policy and OPEB (other post-employment benefits) challenges facing the city.
Each group was given the chance to give a presentation at City Hall and hear feedback from Avedisian as well as Janine Burke-Wells, the director of the Warwick Sewer Authority and Patricia Reynolds from the Planning Department.
To address inconsistencies with National Grid and conglomerate energy suppliers, students recommended that the city look into privatizing their streetlights, allowing for competitive local control over the energy that would power the lights. For the sewer projects that have yet to be completed, students recommended finding a healthy mix of funding through grants and measured increases to residents’ taxes.
To further develop Apponaug, students zoned in on a few uninhabited tracts of property within the Circulator to potentially develop into a restaurant or ice cream shop, a skate park or a health clinic, along with erecting more signage and starting a public service announcement campaign to raise awareness of making the area more walking-friendly, and accounting for the increase of pedestrians in the area.
In their presentation to address OPEB liability, the students presented options of creating a voluntary buyout program for pension recipients, creating a mutual fund financed through bonding to address the ballooning payments and starting a trust fund, along with sanctioning a committee to study the issue more in-depth.
After the presentations, Avedisian expressed that the students had come to many of the same conclusions that city staff had come to – especially in regards to OPEB and the sewer projects, where the students hit on many of the exact same strategies being utilized.
“I thought they all did a fantastic job. I like the model Johnson & Wales uses,” Avedisian said. “They bring a different perspective where they basically tell us what’s directly on their minds. It was very valuable for us.”
Lynch, likewise, found herself impressed with the work that the students turned in.
“They’re just learning about policies and politics and how it works – especially at a local level,” she said. “I’m so impressed with the students. They took some very difficult issues that they didn’t have much background information on and they did the research. Like the mayor said, they came up with solutions which his staff are looking at. I’m very proud of the students.”
For the students themselves, the experience got them off and running in their post-secondary education and showed them that they have what it takes to propose tangible solutions to real problems.
“It was a great experience,” said Ryan Nixon, a freshman majoring in marketing who hopes to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 Company one day. “I ran with the Apponaug project because I’m a marketing major and I like that creative aspect and being able to bring my idea to the table.”
“It was a great opportunity,” said Jonathan Dufromont, also a freshman, majoring in political science with aspirations to go into local politics and, perhaps, be governor one day. “I love how career-oriented the school is. This will look really good on a resume and it benefits our future because we can utilize that knowledge going forward. I’m thankful to the school and the mayor’s office for providing that opportunity.”
Lynch said that she plans on putting her students through this test every semester that she is able to, and in front of whatever local legislative body is welcoming to the idea.
“If other mayors are open or other town councils are open to it, definitely,” she said. “That’s one of the cornerstones of JWU, with social sciences and political sciences, that we give the students this opportunity to get real life experience.”