Mayoral hopefuls talk education in Roslindale forum

Mayoral Candidates Address Education from Chris Lovett on Vimeo.

The candidates sat almost shoulder-to-shoulder on the stage inside Edward Brooke Charter School’s auditorium, five on either side of the moderator.

Even with no opening or closing statements allowed, candidates looked down at the table, out into the large crowd, or quietly joked with one another as they waited for their turn. One question took fifteen minutes to get through, as each candidate weighed in with their response to the various questions.

Welcome to the life of a mayoral contender for the foreseeable future.

The Wednesday evening forum in Roslindale, which lasted nearly two hours, was put together by advocacy groups, such as Stand for Children and Mass2020, pushing education reforms. The candidates up on the stage included former School Committee member John Barros, former state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie, District 8 Councillor Michael Ross, City Councillor At-Large John Connolly, former Codman Square Health Center chief Bill Walczak, City Councillor At-Large Felix Arroyo, state Rep. Marty Walsh, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley, District 5 Councillor Rob Consalvo and District 4 Councillor Charles Yancey.

The candidates differed most when asked whether they supported lifting the cap on charter schools.

Three contenders said they did not support lifting the cap: Arroyo, Consalvo and Yancey. “I think now is the time to double-down on public education,” Arroyo said.

Bill Walczak, who helped found a pilot school and a charter school, said he supported expanding charter schools.

“But it’s bigger than that,” he added, saying the next mayor has to be committed to extending the school day in public schools.

Rep. Walsh, who sits on the board of the Neighborhood House Charter School, said he was open to any “creative, open way” that helps students graduate high school and go onto college. “One size does not fit all,” he said.

Ross came down in the middle, saying charter schools have improved the Boston school system, but he added that education is a “delicate ecosystem” and changes shouldn’t be rushed.

Golar Richie said she supports successful charter schools and has seen them in Dorchester. But, she added, once the cap is lifted, the charter schools don’t immediately materialize because of a ramp up period, and there are students in the public school system who “need attention immediately.”

The candidates were also asked to list traits they would look for in searching for a new superintendent. Dr. Carol Johnson is stepping down this summer after six years on the job. The School Committee has tapped budget chief John McDonough as the temporary superintendent until they can find Johnson’s replacement.

Connolly, who chairs the council’s education committee, said he is looking for someone who will decentralize a top-heavy school department’s bureaucracy. “I want a superintendent who is going to remove the dysfunction,” he said.

Ross, who argued that the School Committee should hold off on choosing a superintendent until a new mayor takes office, or is at least elected, said he would look for someone who can engage the community and work to lengthen the school day.

Walsh said he would look for someone to negotiate, rather than clash, with the unions, and bring talented teachers into the system.

A teacher from the Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury asked candidates about their ideas for attracting and retaining teachers, particularly ones reflecting the demographics of a majority-minority city.

“You have to value diversity,” Arroyo said, adding that 87 percent of the student population includes students of color. “You have to sell the profession. We can’t bash teachers. That profession is an honorable one.”

Golar Richie noted that she had hired a diverse staff while she was in the State House and head of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development. Affordable housing for teachers is also key, she said. “We want our teachers to be residents,” she said.

Conley pointed to his tenure as district attorney and running an office of 300 employees. “I run a very diverse office, a welcoming office, an inclusive office and a place where young lawyers of color…want to come to work,” he said. “So that’s all doable in the Boston Public School system.”

Consalvo called for an “aggressive” recruitment policy on a local and national level. “The reality is people want to come here,” and student enrollment is at its highest in eight years, he said.

Barros said there needs to be a strong pipeline of male teachers of color.

“We need to have a strong pipeline that starts with our students,” he said. If our students don’t have a good experience with our schools, why do they want to come back and teach?”

Ahead of the forum, Connolly and Barros sought to roll out their own education proposals.

On Wednesday morning, Connolly was in front of the Mission Hill School on Alleghany St. to unveil a “Building Blocks Initiative,” which would “fast-track” permits for development projects that include new school construction or renovations in their proposals. According to the Connolly campaign, the city’s schools need $1.8 billion in new facilities and $640 million in renovations.

Barros called for a “single assignment and application process for all schools,” both Boston Public Schools and charters. Parents are currently forced to juggle several applications and deadlines at the same time, he said.