By Seth Daniel
Though there wasn’t much said about Charlestown specifically, Mayor Martin Walsh delivered his second State of the City Address on Tuesday night in Symphony Hall and focused on several citywide issues – most importantly education.
With the backdrop of a looming $50 million cut to the Boston Public Schools, Walsh led off his 30 minute speech with a focus on education – even inviting musical groups, new principals and poets from various public, private and charter schools throughout the city to perform or be recognized – while also peppering the speech throughout with education priorities.
“I want you and everyone to know: the Boston Public Schools are my priority,” he said resolutely, with the unspoken context of the potential cut and visible protests going on outside the Hall. “A year ago, I said, despite our many bright spots, I was not satisfied with our system’s performance. So we went to work.”
We appointed a dynamic superintendent in Dr. Tommy Chang. We hired 24 new principals. I met with most of them personally…We began extending the school day for every student through 8th grade. We are redesigning our high schools for 21st-Century education. We invited the entire community to help create our 10-year school building plan. And for the third straight year, I will send a budget to the City Council that increases school funding, for a total increase of nearly $90 million since I took office.”
He wove his administration’s latest victory – drawing General Electric to locate its world headquarters to the South Boston waterfront – into that education discussion as well.
“This is why I look forward to welcoming General Electric to its new global headquarters in Boston,” he said, pausing for applause. “GE is not only a historic innovator, returning to the city where Thomas Edison got his start. It’s not only another step forward for Boston on the world stage. It’s a magnet for talent and investment that we’ll direct toward our shared goals: in opportunity, in community, in education.
That’s the future I’m focused on tonight, and every day.”
He even addressed the scores of students in the the audience directly about his commitment to their education.
“And if you look around Symphony Hall, you’ll see that future: hundreds of students from the Boston Public Schools are here,” he said. “I invited them, because they need to be part of the conversation about the direction their city is heading. And when it comes to our schools, they deserve to know that their Mayor stands behind them. I want to address them directly: I know how hard you work. I know the challenges you face. I was a struggling student in this city once, as were many of the adults in this room. We don’t need you to be perfect. We need you to keep learning, and keep believing in your dreams. The rest is on us. You deserve a community united behind you.”
That drew a standing ovation, and screams of affirmation from the English High Band members, who shouted, “We love you Marty Walsh!” It was a move that showed his growing status as not so much a policy-wonk – as was the previous administration – but rather a populist hero.
The only nod he gave to the controversy surrounding the schools and the protests outside was a vague reference to uniting and turning passions toward helping students.
“The conversation around our schools concerns me,” he said. “Instead of unity, too often we’ve seen schools pitted against one another, by adults. Tonight, I’m calling on everyone to come together to back all our children, all our teachers, and all our schools. That means fair and sustainable funding for both district and charter schools. It means exploring a unified enrollment system that could help families and level the playing field among schools. This spring we will deepen the enrollment conversation, to address challenges in special education, language services, discipline policies, and transportation. I know that passions run deep. And they should. But the commitment we share to Boston’s children runs deeper.”
He segued that into another education piece affecting Charlestown students and others in making a call for universal pre-kindergarten. And though he made that strong call for pre-K to be expanded beyond its existing small confines, he offered no way to pay for it. Instead, he called on the State Legislature to pony up the money to bring that to bear.
“I invite everyone to join me in making a stand for early education,” he said. “The Boston Public Schools pre-kindergarten program is proven to close the achievement gap. The city has added seats in each of the last two years. Yet hundreds of children still sit on waiting lists, their parents frustrated and already doubting that the system will ever work for them. We’ve stretched funding as far as it will go. And we are not alone. I ask leadership at the State House, and every legislator, to work with Boston, with Lawrence, with Salem, with Attleboro and other cities and towns to expand access to high-quality pre-kindergarten. I know we share this priority. Now let’s fund it.”
Beyond the education focus – which altogether took up more than half of the address – Walsh focused on housing. One new, and still unknown, proposal he laid out Tuesday was a new office in City Hall to focus on helping tenants fight back against evictions – an issue that has only surfaced recently in policy submissions at the City Council and Mayor’s Office.
Such a movement has gotten mixed reviews by property owners, especially small owners, but kudos from housing activists.
“New homes will help bring costs back to working people’s budgets,” he said. “But many just want a fair deal where they live right now. Last year, we doubled the compensation people get when their apartments are turned into condos. But we should do more than compensate. We should help people stay in their communities. Tonight, I can announce a new Office of Housing Stability, to do just that. It’s going to develop resources for tenants, incentives for landlords who do the right thing, and partnerships with developers to keep more of our housing stock affordable. People want to live in Boston. That’s a good thing. But we need to shape growth as a community, not let it shape us.”
A final major focus in the speech was on policing, and Mayor Walsh noted that 2015 was a banner year for reducing homicides, clearing homicide cases, driving down violent crime and lowering property crime.
However, the trend to an increase in non-fatal shootings, he said, was alarming to him.
“We won’t let up for a minute,” he said. “With non-fatal shootings up slightly last year, we can’t afford to. It’s not just a city problem. It’s America’s problem. Two weeks ago I went to Washington and stood with the President, as he unveiled new steps to keep guns out of criminal hands. I said there what I say here: Americans agree on common-sense gun reforms. In Boston, we are showing how to turn consensus into action. So we’ll keep working with cities and states, with experts and survivors, with gun dealers and owners. And we’ll keep building trust in the community every day.”
On a personal note, the mayor said he still loves the job, and it is, in fact, his dream come true.
“I’ve been in this job for two years now,” he said. “But every morning I get up and I feel like my dream came true all over again. A kid from Dorchester, who made some mistakes and needed some help, gets to be mayor of the greatest city in the world.”
Other notes of interest:
- The only point where Charlestown was highlighted specifically was to draw attention to the record-setting Parks budget, noting that the Town, Mattapan and Eastie have been the primary beneficiaries of that.
- One disappointment, perhaps, for Charlestown was the fact that the Sullivan Square/Rutherford Avenue corridor was not included as a new focus area for major planning and development. Many had hoped it would be and the Boston Redevelopment Authority had indicated that the Square had made a short list of such areas. The first two areas had been Washington Street in Jamaica Plain and Andrew Square in South Boston. On Tuesday, the mayor announced the two new areas would be Field’s Corner in Dorchester and Dudley Square in Roxbury.
- Imagine Boston director, Sara Myerson, will be the new Planning Director at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
- This summer, the City will unveil a new $78 million project that rehabilitates the Boylston Street entrance to the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.
- The mayor committed to unveiling a roadmap for investment in the arts, called Boston Creates, and also to commit $1 million to support local artists.
- He promised to bring workers and employers together in a task force to examine and study ways to bring a $15 minimum wage to Boston.