Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Six for City Council in Allston-Brighton

When the six candidates running for City Council in Allston-Brighton’s District 9 gathered for their first pre-election forum, there wasn’t even a hint about naming a bridge or a library for their future predecessor, Jerry McDermott. After serving less than three terms, McDermott is on the way out at age 39. Not only is he forgoing a run for re-election, but he’s moving out of Boston, most likely before the end of his term. Though McDermott inspired only one negative comment during the forum, his exit looms over the new campaign trail like an evacuation sign—saying more about trouble in the city than where to find a safe haven.

The forum was held at the Oak Square YMCA, and it can be said the surrounding neighborhood is less of a haven than before. Just a few blocks from the border of Newton, Oak Square is about as far as the candidates can get from expanding colleges without leaving the district. But the neighborhood is one of two in District 9 where a Catholic school has recently closed. In Oak Square, community activists are raising money to convert the former Our Lady of the Presentation School into a community center. That would be one more reason for families with children to stay, but McDermott has already mentioned the closing as one reason for moving out.

“People are leaving the city. Property values are going up. Water rates are going up. Homeowner’s insurance is getting more expensive,” said candidate Gregory Glennon. An assistant district attorney in Suffolk County, Glennon narrowly missed getting elected state representative from Allston-Brighton in 2005. His example of flight from the neighborhood was a family whose child was assigned to a public school in East Boston.

“I hear over and over again that people are leaving because of the schools,” said Tim Schofield. An attorney with an office in Brighton, Schofield also ran for representative in 2005.

The youngest candidate, 26 year-old James Jenner, said Allston-Brighton was becoming another Amherst, Massachusetts—a college town with very few families.

To varying degrees, census figures analyzed by the Boston Redevelopment Authority show this is happening in several neighborhoods, including South Boston, the South End, Jamaica Plain, the Fenway, and even West Roxbury. According to the same figures, the number of family households in Allston-Brighton declined from 1990 to 2000 by 6.5%. The BRA also reports that, over the same period, the number of housing units in Allston-Brighton has grown, but so has the percentage that is absentee-owned.

And, while some residents in a park near the YMCA were letting their dogs frolic off-leash, the candidates inside were putting even more blame for the flight of families on expanding colleges, with their rippling of disruptive students into the off-campus housing market. One of the candidates talking about the students was Alessandro “Alex” Selvig, a Lake Street resident who wants to keep Boston College from building a baseball stadium on conservation land acquired recently from the Archdiocese of Boston.

“This is the biggest issue facing in Allston-Brighton: the party houses, the kids. They’re driving us crazy,” he said.

To crack down on party houses, Selvig and candidate Mark Ciommo favored increasing the staff in the city’s Inspectional Services Dept. Schofield wants to add any unpaid fines for code violations to property tax bills. “We can increase enforcement,” he said, “but if we don’t increase the pain, it’s not going to do much good.”

There was also a question about a proposal to give tenants in large buildings the right to negotiate collectively over their rent. The candidates who took the question, Ciommo and Selvig, were both opposed. “It only scares investors away,” said Ciommo, adding, “We need more development of affordable units, not less.”

Taking even more heat than landlords were colleges and universities.

“There’s a lot of anxiety out there,” said Glennon. “There’s this sense the institutions will do whatever they want to do.”

Glennon said he would oppose new housing for undergraduates on the land in Brighton that Boston College recently acquired from the Archdiocese of Boston. Jenner called for more give-backs to the community, including revenue based on the income generated by expansion. He’s also opposed to Harvard’s attempts to relocate residents of Charlesview Apartments complex near Western Avenue and North Harvard Street.

The executive director of the Veronica Smith Senior Center, Ciommo called for Harvard University to allow new businesses on property where it has no short-term plan for development. Schofield said long-range plans for university expansion should also include open space set aside for the community.

Another candidate, the executive director of the Brighton Main Streets program, Rosie Hanlon, has been a member of the advisory task force on expansion by Boston College.
“I worked to get the students back on campus where they belong,” she said.

But Selvig said there should have been more notification of task force meetings among the college’s neighbors.

“The process has to be changed,” he said. “We have to know what’s going on right across the street from us.”

Selvig sat through the forum with a pair of blue-and-white boxing gloves. He said they was supposed to show that he would fight for the district, but he also boasted a diplomat’s skills in negotiating and an entrepreneur’s skills in making a deal.

A mother of five, Hanlon described herself as having “a very maternal, pit-bullish approach to getting things done.” She also took credit for getting the local New Balance Factory Store to donate sneakers to a walking club. “I have the experience,” she said. “I have the commitment. I get results.”

Glennon spoke about delivering constituent services while he was working as an aide to former Allston-Brighton State Representative Brian Golden. Glennon also said he would “absolutely oppose” Mayor Menino’s attempt to raise city revenue by increasing the meals tax.

A fourth-generation member of his family in Allston-Brighton, Ciommo spoke of his work in social services and being active in the community on parks, public safety, and as a parent representative at the Gardner Elementary School.

On his law firm website, Schofield cites experience in litigating “complex business and partnership disputes,” along with cases over zoning and land use. A US Army veteran and former congressional aide, he said he’d be “an effective advocate” who would know when it’s time to bang fists and when to negotiate.

Jenner has lived all his life a few blocks from Oak Square, on Kenrick Street. His most recent jobs were driving for UPS and making deliveries for Papa Gino’s. He said he’ll devote 20% of his salary as a City Councilor to a fund for the community, and he described himself as “somebody who is not prone to the old way of politics—money politics.”

Friday, July 13, 2007

For Council at Large: Later and Less Often

The Boston City Council is trying to make an off-year election more streamlined and less expensive. At a special meeting July 12, the Council approved a home rule petition that would make it possible to skip this year’s preliminary election for its members at large. Nine people are running for the four seats, and a preliminary vote September 25 would only eliminate one candidate. If the petition were to be signed by Mayor Menino and approved in the State House, there would be a special law allowing all 9 at-large candidates to appear on the ballot once, in November.

One of the 7 councilors who voted for the home rule petition, Stephen Murphy, calls it a “sensible” way to save money.

“I don’t think anybody’s hurt by it,” said Murphy. “The taxpayers save three-quarters of a million dollars.”

That’s based on having a preliminary vote for councilor at large, with police and civilians at polling places for 196 precincts. The remaining precincts would have at least three candidates running for a council district seat.

Voting against the special law were Councilors Michael Flaherty, John Tobin, Charles Yancey, and Sam Yoon. Councilor Félix Arroyo voted present.

“We didn’t have any public hearings on this,” said Yancey. “We didn’t have any of the other candidates weigh in on the issue.”

More difficult to predict is how the change would affect election results. Arroyo and three of the “no” votes have all seen their fortunes improve dramatically after trailing in a preliminary election. Flaherty won his first term in 1999 by moving up from 5th place and bumping veteran Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, who finished third in the preliminary. Four years ago, Arroyo ran fifth in the preliminary, then finished second, displacing Patricia White from her spot among the top four. In 2005, it was Sam Yoon who went from fifth place to third, switching spots with John R. Connolly. In 2001, John Tobin won his first term as councilor in District 6 (W. Roxbury/Jamaica Plain) after trailing Mike Rush in the preliminary.

If there’s any change in an electorate from preliminary to final, it’s size. The larger pool of voters is usually more diverse. That might have been a factor in the slippage for candidates whose political names had more recognition. The difference might even pose a problem for Murphy, though he says that’s unlikely. “I’m not concerned about a primary,” he said. “I’ve got more money than anybody but Flaherty.”

Murphy also argues the lack of a preliminary for councilors at large this year will have little effect on voter turnout. “An at-large race does not drive turnout,” he said. “A district race does, and a mayor’s race drives turnout.”

There was agreement from the president of the Boston League of Women Voters, Mary Tamer. "If they do go ahead and eliminate the preliminary election," she said, "nobody's getting hurt here."

While the home rule petition would mean less work for the Boston Election Dept. this year, Tamer noted the unusually high number of special elections to fill local seats vacated before the end of a term.

"Our primary concern" about the City Council race, she said, "is that the people who want to be on the ballot are there, and that has been taken care of with this proposal."

It can also be said that a preliminary for councilor at large would only subtract marginal candidates. Some of them, such as Anthony Schinella, at least made the rounds at forums and contributed to the pre-electoral discourse. But some of the other discards included Dan “The Bagel Man” Kontoff and Arthur Lucky Craffey. And, in some years, the discards were very few: one in 1997, and two in 1999 (when the 9th place candidate received 2,137 votes). There was no preliminary in 2001, because there were only 7 candidates at large. That number doubled in 2003 and went to 15 in 2005.

Between the candidate forums and coverage in the media, a preliminary election helps put people on notice about the upcoming final. But what’s obvious in the larger picture is that fewer people have been running for City Council since the last time it was reconfigured, in the election of 1983. In the last preliminary election for the all at-large council in 1981, there were 40 candidates for 9 seats. This year (also with no mayoral election), there are only 27 for 13 seats. Take away the six running for an open seat in Allston-Brighton, and there are 21 for 12 seats. Five of the 8 district councilors on the ballot this year are unopposed. Two others are having a rematch with a challenger who previously won less than 20% of the vote. That leaves only one district with a new challenger.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Dropout Rate Down? Not So Fast

The statewide figures on the annual dropout rate show a “slight decline,” but the rate for the Boston Public Schools is going the other way. In 2005-06, the rate for Boston’s district schools was 9.9%. That was higher than the figures for the 7 previous years.

Among the more conventional high schools, there were four with an annual dropout rate in double digits: Brighton High, East Boston High, Jeremiah Burke High, and Boston English. The rates had increased for all of these schools, except Jeremiah Burke, where the rate decreased from 17% the previous year to 14.9%, or 117 students. There were even higher rates at some of the innovative subdivided high schools. School Dept. spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo says this might reflect students who entered the larger district high schools before they were reconfigured into smaller, more specialized units.

Hardly unusual in the new figures are the differences by race and gender. The highest rate in Boston involving a large number was for Hispanic students (12%). The rates for other racial groups were: Black (10.9%), White (7.4%), and Asian (2.6%). There was also a gender gap, with the rate for males at 11.6% and for females at 8.3%.

Palumbo notes that annual figures don’t tell as much as the figures that track a group of students over a number of years. Though the annual figures do fluctuate, the ups and downs of the 4 most recent years follow 4 years of a steady decline, from 1998-99 through 2001-02. That change coincides with the start of a requirement for high school graduates to pass MCAS in English and Math. But this year’s figures also suggest the dropouts are motivated by other reasons besides struggles with MCAS. Other figures show a steadily rising percentages of students in the Boston Public Schools who satisfy the MCAS graduation requirement by the end of grade 11. Of the 12th graders who dropped out of school in 2005-06 throughout Massachusetts, more than two-thirds had already met the MCAS requirement.

In reaction to the 12th grade dropout figures, State Education Commissioner David Driscoll issued a statement saying, “It is concerning to me that so many of our older students are getting within striking distance to earning a high school diploma, but dropping our before they can graduate.” The Dept. of Education surveyed school superintendents about the problem and found two main reasons: family and academics. The department also says many students reported dropping out “to begin working because they didn’t think they could afford the cost of college tuition.”

The executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, Neil Sullivan, says some of the students who drop out in grade 12 are short of the academic requirements for graduation by only a few credits. That would still be enough to require repeating a grade. Sullivan explains, “They don’t relish the embarrassment of returning to that high school after their peers have graduated.”

According to Sullivan, the missing links are an alternative that would let students get their diplomas more quickly, without going back to the same school, and—by way of dropout prevention—more attention to how grades 11 and 12 are a launch to college or a career.

“We have to integrate the end of high school with the beginning of something else,” said Sullivan. “If we do that, we’re going to bring down the dropout rate among 11 and 12 graders.”

But he says that also requires bridging a gap in motivation that holds back many students from disadvantaged backgrounds—a gap that the Private Industry Council has tried to narrow by having at-risk students combine academic work with experience in a workplace. “We have to give young people the experiences that motivate them while they’re in high school,” said Sullivan. “We can’t just be lecturing them on delayed gratification.”

Updates. The Boston Municipal Research Bureau reports the dropout problem is getting even more attention from the School Dept. The revised budget approved last week by the City Council contains a supplement of $500,000 for student attendance problems and the dropout rate. The problem is also under study by the Mauricio Gastón Instititute for Latino Community Development & Public Policy at UMass Boston, which notes that the cohort dropout rate in Mass. for Latino students with limited English proficiency was 33.2%.