By Peter Shanley and John Ruch, Gazette Staff
The list of mayoral candidate Bill Walczak’s efforts goes on and on—founding president of the Codman Square Health Center (CSHC), founding president of the Codman Academy Charter Public School, co-founder of Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers—just to name a few.
He also has been involved in the Northern Irish Peace Process—going to Ireland to lecture about dealing with racial division in Dorchester—and helping bring medicine to Vietnam and parts of Africa.
But for Walczak, that’s what he is all about.
“My life has really been about activism and trying to improve the lives of people,” he said in a recent interview at the Gazette office.
Walczak touched on a variety of issues during the hour-long interview, from adamantly supporting a longer school day to his vision for the city to his love of Jamaica Plain. He said he wants to bring his strong management experience to the mayoral office.
Walczak first came to the city from New Jersey to attend Boston University in 1972. He met his wife Linda, a Dorchester native, and soon moved to Codman Square. One of their first dates was a “counter-inaugural” protesting the presidency of Richard Nixon.
It was a period of great division in the area, with white and black people pitted against each other, said Walczak. He said poverty and crime, including arson, was a problem. But, Walczak said, he loved the neighborhood and began going to community meetings.
Walczak became the chair of a committee to bring a health center to Codman Square and said that that effort was the first time that white and black people started working together. He was the president of the board for the health center and eventually became the executive director, a position he remained in until two years ago.
“The health center was a vehicle for change” and helped revitalize the area, said Walczak.
He said running the CSHC, with an annual budget of $25 million and about 300 to 400 employees, allowed him to become an experienced manager.
“That’s something I bring to the table,” Walczak said.
He added that he “knows how to pick talented people” and is “very proud” of leaving CSHC in great shape. Walczak said when he left CSHC, it had $10 million in cash or investments in banks and had no debts.
Health centers have been a controversial topic recently in JP, with the Martha Eliot Health Center (MEHC) announcing in January that it was ending service for adult patients. Walczak said he does not understand the decision by Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH), which runs MEHC, and that it leaves residents of the Bromley-Heath housing development and JP “up in the air.”
He said he was “very disappointed” in BCH’s decision.
Walczak is currently a vice president of community relations at Shawmut Design and Construction. Through that position, he said has worked successfully on trying to improve minority-hiring practices on the company’s worksites. Minority-hiring practices has been an issue at another company’s worksite at 225 Centre St. in Jackson Square. Walczak said any contractor can improve minority-hiring practices by focusing on the issue.
Walczak said he wants to bring his managerial experience to the City’s top office. He talked a lot of forming partnerships between the various institutions throughout the city, such as between hospitals and schools. Walczak said his vision for the city is jobs, education and public safety.
“Those issues will be the focus of my administration,” he said.
He said he wants to go department by department, figuring what resources each has and what it is trying to accomplish.
“How can we make Boston more efficient, so staff can do more in our communities?” asked Walczak.
He said he wants to place more police on the street and look into voice recognition software for the department. That would allow police officers to speak, rather than write, reports through a computer.
Walczak also said he would replicate citywide a crime “e-lert” program he help start in Codman Square. The e-lert recaps crimes committed in the community for the past 24 to 48 hours and is sent to residents via email.
On education, Walczak spoke about the importance of early childhood education, saying children should have a certain amount of knowledge when entering school. He also talked about holding principals more accountable and extending the school day.
“We need to expand the school day. That is really mandatory in my view,” said Walczak.
He said there needs to be strong principals and resources available across the system, as they are essential ingredients in a better school system.
“Typically, a good principal equals a good school,” said Walczak.
He said education is the best way to deal with poverty and have people move from the low-income level to the middle class. He said one of the easiest ways to make that happen in Boston is to become a healthcare professional, as almost 1 in 5 jobs in the city are in that industry. That’s one of the reasons he helped found the Kennedy Academy for Health Careers.
Walczak is no stranger to Boston Public Schools (BPS), as Linda is a retired BPS teacher. He was also a member of the External Advisory Committee (EAC), a group put together to help form the new school-assignment system.
He called the plan that was approved earlier this year “a good compromise and the best we could have gotten.” It is a home-based, zone-free school choice plan.
Walczak also talked about the city’s economy, saying it is growing and people want to move here. He said the city has “enormous prizes,” such as the Innovation District. But, Walczak said, the City has to make sure the economic growth does not end before the neighborhoods and figure out how to draw those residents into the downtown jobs.
One issue that is expected to be prominent in the mayoral race is the proposed casino in East Boston. At issue is whether there should be a citywide vote or one that is restricted to East Boston. Walczak, who is not personally in favor of a casino, said he is a supporter of a citywide vote, as a casino affects the entire city.
He discussed his enthusiasm for JP, saying it has vitality and communitarian spirit. Walczak, who has previously sat on the advisory board to the Franklin Park Coalition, recently went to the Wake Up the Earth Festival and said JP feels together, open to new ideas and wants to make positive change.
“I love JP. JP is a great neighborhood,” said Walczak.