At-large council candidates tackle youth issues

October 24, 2009
By

David Taber and John Ruch

Most of the eight finalists contending for four citywide At Large City Council seats appeared at two local forums Oct. 8, with four council hopefuls appearing at an event where few of the over 200 city residents gathered could have any direct effect on their fates Nov. 3.

Candidates Felix Arroyo, Tomas Gonzalez, Tito Jackson and incumbent Steve Murphy attended a youth forum co-sponsored by the local Hyde Square Task Force and other groups at Boston English High School at 144 McBride Street in the late afternoon. Incumbent John Connolly, Jackson, Andrew Kenneally and Ayanna Pressley attended the Ward 10 Democratic Committee forum in the evening.

Arroyo also reportedly made an appearance at the end of the Ward 10 forum.

The eighth candidate, Doug Bennett, did not attend either of the forums.

At the youth forum, candidates were given one minute each to field questions from youths on topics ranging from MBTA transportation costs to youth violence and incarceration rates. Despite the time limits, the four candidates managed to engage in a lively conversations that at times seemed almost like a brainstorming sessions.

At the Ward 10 Forum, the candidates were given 5 minutes to essentially deliver a stump speech and answer a few questions if they did not use up their allotted time.

The two events gave some of the candidates the opportunity to highlight their local roots. All four of thProxy-Connection: keep-alive
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candidates who showed up for the Youth Forum—Arroyo, Gonzalez, Jackson, and Murphy—were born and raised in Boston.

Many of the youths’ questions and candidates’ responses to questions about providing youth jobs program intertwined with conversation about youth violence issues. And on those and other issues, the candidates were able to bring first-hand experience to most of the issues brought up by their youth questioners. Rather than debating, they often appeared to be working in sync—reinforcing each other’s points and looking at issues from different angles to present well-rounded responses.

On the jobs front, Murphy said that, thanks last year to federal stimulus funding, the city has been able to grow its youth jobs program for the last five years. That funding will also be available next year and, “I am committed to doing what I can to make sure that every youth who wants a job gets it,” he said.

He also pointed to his work on the City Council getting resolutions passed for reform of the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system. Mandatory CORI checks often bar youths seeking employment from many jobs. The City Council has twice passed resolutions—most recently on Oct. 7—urging the state legislature to reform the CORI system.

“CORI [reform] is one of the most important pieces” for curbing violence, Murphy said. Under the current system, “Kids are barred for life from participating in society. “We will get it done,” he said, noting that Gov. Deval Patrick supports reform legislation.

Arroyo offered some evidence of the problems with the CORI system, saying a youth he coaches in softball could not get a job at McDonald’s after he was convicted for possession of a dime bag—a small amount of marijuana.

He said his city budgeting philosophy is that funding should be allocated first based on the immediacy of the need. “Taking care of young people should be the priority,” he said.

Murphy also said City Council was instrumental last year in getting the Boston Police Department (BPD) to reduce its overtime budget from $40 million to $31 million. Next year, it will be reduced to $25 million, he said.

He said he would advocate for the city taking “those resources and shifting them directly into how do we make kids safe.”

Jackson also pointed to job creation as a deterrent for youth violence, saying he would encourage the city to push more private businesses to offer jobs for city youths. Those jobs would provide training “and additionally, you might be able to get a permanent job,” he said.

Weighing in on violence issues, Gonzalez said he supports the expansion of support services for youth dealing with post-traumatic stress in the wake of violence.
Schools

When asked about how they would work to decrease dropout rates in Boston Public Schools (BPS), and increase college graduation rates for students who do graduate from the school system, all of the candidates said the city needs to step up its support for English-language learners.

Gonzalez claimed that Latinos are underrepresented in leadership positions at BPS, and said that he supports two-way bilingual immersion programs—where students are taught half of their curriculum in English and half in another language—as the most effective way to teach students learning English. They are the best way to respect “the identity culture and language” of non-English-speaking students, he said. As of this year, Boston Public Schools is running four two-way Spanish-English immersion programs.

Gonzalez also said he supports an increased focus on early childhood development, including Mayor Thomas Menino’s “Thrive in Five” initiative.

Arroyo said the school budgeting process should prioritize students’ needs. Funding for budget items that do not have an immediate effect on students’ classroom experiences should be given secondary priority, “We need to make sure that what we do spend ends up in the school system,” he said.

But, he said, other changes to the culture at public schools would not “cost a dime.” Arroyo, who holds a masters degree in community economic development from Southern New Hampshire University, related an experience in high school when his guidance counselor “told me ‘Felix, college is not for everyone.’”

Generally, Arroyo said, school officials and other authority figures in youths’ lives should “check [their] attitude,” and work to be more respectful of those they serve.

Murphy called for the elimination of state-mandated Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing as a requirement for graduation. “It’s a lot of pressure on you for a one-shot deal,” he said. “It leaves kids saying, ‘I didn’t like what happened to me, I am not going to play the game any more.’”

Jackson, who heads a division of the state’s economic development office devoted to boosting information technology business, repeatedly called for increased collaboration between the city and businesses on education and other youth issues.

The candidates also called for more support for the public school system from colleges and universities in the city.

One issue that did not come up at the Youth Forum was the controversy over lifting a state-mandated cap on charter schools. Publicly funded, but run independent of local school systems, charter schools generally offer rigorous, college prep oriented education. State law limits the number of charter schools in a given district so they provide seats for no more than 9 percent of students.

There is a debate underway about expanding the charter cap, with some saying the expansion would divert needed resources from traditional BPS schools. Keneally touched on that issue at the Ward 10 forum, but described it as a distraction. The city should be focused on cost-saving measures, including saving on transportation costs by focusing on neighborhood schools, he said.

John Connolly, who also appeared at the Ward 10 forum, said he wants to work with BPS to set up an environmental science academy school to train youths for jobs in the green economy.

Other issues

All of the candidates said they are opposed the placement of trash transfer stations, bus yards and other uses that have negative environmental and public health impacts, in minority neighborhoods.

“Every single one of my friends had asthma,” growing up in Roxbury, Jackson said. “The…[city]…needs to make sure that this environmental racism, which is what it is, does not continue.”

Echoing his own previous proposal to dig up portions of the Government Center plaza around City Hall and plant community gardens, Gonzalez said he would advocate for community reclamation of vacant lots. They should be turned into “art spaces” and new parks designed by youths and the community, he said.

Murphy praised the Menino administration’s efforts over the years to encourage the reclamation of contaminated brownfields for affordable housing projects.

All of the candidates also said they support youth advocacy efforts to for a reduced fare MBTA pass for Boston residents between the ages of 15 and 21.

Youths from the non-profit Alternatives for Community and the Environment (ACE) recently successfully campaigned to get the MBTA to extend the hours when free student passes will be honored from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Murphy suggested that 18 might be a better cut off. “I don’t think you are going to be able to get it to 21,” he told youth organizers.

Other candidates

Candidate Ayanna Pressley also attended the Ward 10 committee forum. A Chicago native, she has worked for ex state Rep. Joe Kennedy in Roxbury—an experience that taught her “good government is about good service delivery,” she said

Pressley was raised by a single mother. Her father was a heroin addict who spent 16 years in jail. “I know what it is to live on the margin and be marginalized,” she said.

She also worked as US Senator John Kerry’s political director.

The eighth candidate, Doug Bennett, did not attend either of the Oct. 8 forums. He survived the preliminary elections, which whittled the at-large race down from 15 to eight candidates, after knocking, he said, on 70,000 front doors in Boston. Bennett has called for BRA board members to be elected and for a better city-backed mortgage program. Bennett is a former Nantucket selectman.