Sunday, November 1, 2009

Menino Vs. Flaherty: Last Salvos, Loose Ends

If there’s one sign of change in Boston since 1993, it’s how candidates for mayor sidestep a question about the residency requirement for city workers.

Once a test of confidence in the city, the issue has been eclipsed by education, youth violence, and—despite the recent slump in real estate—the lack of affordable housing.

Sixteen years ago, Thomas Menino and co-finalist Jim Brett took positions favoring a stronger residency requirement, spurred by outcry from the pro-residency group Save Our City. In the aftermath of an economic downturn, and with residential property values still slipping, there was a resurgence of support for keeping city workers in Boston—and, by extension, the entire middle class. The earlier push for a residency requirement was in the 1970’s, after the start of desegregation in the Boston Public Schools, when there was another downturn coupled with declining property values.

When Menino and co-finalist Michael Flaherty were asked about residency in a forum last week at Faneuil Hall, they each expressed general support then switched the topic.

“But the core issue is why people leave Boston,” said Flaherty.

By the end of his answer time, Menino was fending off criticism that he should have more racial diversity among supervisors and top officials in city agencies.

“It’s not just having minorities in the administration,” he said. “It’s about doing things for the neighborhoods to improve the quality of life.”

On schools, both finalists have straddled the line between fact and overstatement. Flaherty says 38% of the Boston Public Schools are underperforming, and Menino says the figure overstates the number of schools with achievement lags across the board.

The mayor even points out that underperforming schools can also be found in wealthy suburbs—though he doesn’t say the ones in Boston are doing just as well. He says the dropout rate has been lower during his time as mayor than it had been for several years before. When reminded that the rate showed no steady improvement during his tenure, he replied, “Those are just numbers.”

One number that hasn’t been disputed by Flaherty is the mayor’s claim that applications to the Boston Public Schools have recently increased. This follows years of declining enrollment, attributed by officials to competition from charter schools, but also to a decline in school-age population.

One thing Menino has done in recent years, with encouragement from parents and officials such as City Councilor Maureen Feeney, is increase the number of K-8 schools. And, with the application process for next year getting under way, Superintendent Carol Johnson has added seats in Charlestown and the North End, while officials are looking for ways to increase capacity in areas with growing demand, such as West Roxbury, Roslindale, the Back bay and Beacon Hill.

Flaherty has drawn more attention to the waiting list for enrollment in charter schools. He wants to lift the cap that limits new charter schools in Boston—a change that would subtract money from the district schools, barring change in the funding formula. Menino favors “in-district” charter schools that would allow for more autonomy and innovation while still being under Boston control. Either approach would require approval of legislation at the State House.

“The last thing we need to do,” Flaherty said, “is to give the mayor control of more schools.”

Menino says some students, such as English language learners, are under-represented in conventional charter schools, while others who enroll fail to graduate without a detour to the Boston Public Schools.

“We don’t need more schools in Boston,” said Menino. “We need better schools.”

Menino’s push for “in-district charter schools” emerged in June. This followed years of struggles with the Boston Teachers Union to expand innovative “pilot schools.” The change also came after plans for more charter schools had been announced by Flaherty and fellow challenger (and later running mate) Sam Yoon. Adding to the incentive for new charter schools was the promise of federal stimulus money.

Both mayoral finalists say they want to save more money on student transportation. Menino and school officials have called for doing this in past years, only to retreat in the face of opposition. One argument from opponents is that a cutback on busing—and enrollment options—would leave some parts of Boston disproportionately zoned for underperforming schools.

“Until we get every school as a choice school,” said Menino, “we’re not going to get there.”

Flaherty called the spending on busing, with reportedly high numbers of empty seats, “a colossal waste of resources.” He also points out that the decrease in buses in Boston was much smaller than the decrease in student enrollment.

Menino has repeatedly said half the current busing is for students in special programs for learning disabilities, or for students in charter schools and Catholic schools. When officials were considering an end to busing for schools with citywide enrollment, they also met with opposition from champions of citywide enrollment for charter schools. If the supply of charter schools in Boston were allowed to expand, there could also be more demand for busing.

Another sign of change in Boston is that, despite the current housing slump, private owners of subsidized apartment complexes still want to convert them to market rental units. That’s currently the prospect at two “expiring use” developments in Hyde Park, Georgetowne Homes and Blake Estates.

Menino met with Georgetowne tenants last month and promised to support state legislation that would limit rent increases developments with expiring federal subsidy agreements. Supporters of the targeted rent control have been trying to get approval at the State House for several years, without success. While tenants put their hopes in more aggressive lobbying by Menino, owners of developments around the country are said to be more nervous about depending on federal subsidies in the future. Short of adding to units he was able to keep affordable for the long term, Menino said he would try to keep Georgetowne Homes affordable for current residents.

Flaherty has said he would support the legislation favored by the tenants. He wants more of the city’s new affordable housing to people with greater need—which could effectively mean a higher amount of subsidy per unit. He also called for doing more to prevent the eviction of tenants during foreclosures.

“We need to knock on the doors of these banks to help keep people in their homes,” Flaherty said in the forum at Faneuil Hall.

The very next day, Menino announced had done just that. Talks were in progress at four properties in Boston controlled by Bank of America to allow the tenants to stay. Under the plan, the properties would be acquired by the city and be turned over to private or non-profit developers.

Menino took credit for the plan being the first of its kind around the country, with potential for catching on with other lenders, but the idea had been proposed months earlier by the advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana. What neither finalist has proven is whether a similar approach would work with financial stakeholders that have less visibility in Boston than Bank of America.

The forum also took place three days before reports that a graduate student at a Boston University BioSafety Level 2 laboratory had been infected with a bacterium that can cause meningitis. For opponents of the BioSafety Level 4 laboratory that BU is still trying to get approved, the infection was one more reason to say no. But officials say the infection was reported promptly and that the student is recovering.

At Faneuil Hall, the Level 4 lab brought out sharp differences between the candidates, with Flaherty having switched from being a supporter to an opponent. He was against having the lab in a densely populated area, near Boston Medical Center. Menino says there already is a Level 4 lab on a college campus in Georgia.

“We have the most stringent regulations,” Menino said.

“We don’t have a comprehensive evacuation plan,” said Flaherty.

Whoever wins on November 3 will have to reach new contract agreements with several unions representing city workers, at a time when the budget is expected to be even tighter.

Flaherty says by introducing performance reviews he can eliminate “a tremendous amount of wasteful spending.”

“I argue,” he said, “that we can save millions, if not tens of millions of dollars by bringing performance review to Boston.”

Hanging over both finalists are troubles with the Boston Firefighters Union, whose last contract expired in July, 2006. Since indications of possible substance abuse when two firefighters were killed in a fire in 2007, Menino has been trying to have the contract include random drug and alcohol testing. Despite recent management reforms, Menino’s tenure has seen equipment problems (above all, the fatal crash of a ladder truck) and alleged abuses of disability pensions—leading in October to federal indictments. But it’s Flaherty who has the union’s endorsement. Along with the benefit comes the burden, since the union has also been blamed for the pension abuse, rising overtime and resistance to changes in vehicle maintenance.

Flaherty has set a limit on how far he would go with a pay raise for firefighters, and he promises to go even farther than Menino with random testing. At last week’s forum, Menino still took issue with the union’s contract demands in connection with testing. “They want to get paid to take the test,” he said. “Is that fair?”

It can be argued it was fair enough for Boston’s largest police union. Menino introduced random testing on the Boston Police Department ten years ago, after fierce resistance from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. The police contract also introduced new benefits—the education bonuses provided under the Quinn Bill, and paid for by the city and the state. With the state cutting back its share, leaders of the BPPA insist on keeping a benefit that was gained by bargaining. As BPPA Secretary Jay Broderick wrote three months ago in a union publication, any cutback by the state “will just force the individual municipality to provide the funding.”

Also see NNN report on debate by Joe Rowland.