Councilor John R. Connolly launched a bid for mayor of Boston outside Brighton High School Tuesday, leveling his most pointed criticism against the 20-year incumbent, Thomas M. Menino.
Introducing himself as a former teacher and a parent of a kindergartner, Connolly said he offered voters the “bold desire to change the status quo, particularly when it comes to schools.” He described Menino as a “good man” with an unquestionable love for Boston.
But under Menino, Connolly said, a school system top-heavy with administrators had fallen short. In a city endowed with world-class universities, said Connolly, Boston public schools have earned a “failing grade.”
“If any urban school system in America can be transformed, it’s Boston, where the mayor has the ability to appoint the School Committee and pick the superintendent,” Connolly said after an 11-minute speech. “It’s eminently doable to make this the best school system in the United States.”
Connolly accused Menino of not pushing hard enough during contract negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union to extend the school day. He said a new student-assignment plan failed to offer enough parents good school choices close to home. Strong schools build strong neighborhoods, said Connolly, and failing schools force young families to leave the city.
Menino opted not to engage. He had no public appearances and declined requests with his office for an interview. Menino, who has endured a series of illnesses in recent months, has not said publicly whether he will seek a sixth term this fall.
A public schools spokesman defended the department’s record, saying the system’s four-year graduation rate had hit an all-time high and 1,000 more families opted this year to send their children to city schools.
“We’re not saying victory has been achieved, but we’ve made real progress,” said the spokesman, Matthew F. Wilder.
For his campaign kickoff, Connolly stood at Brighton High because he said it illustrated how administrators had failed students and teachers.
In January, the school had been warned that it was one of five Boston public high schools in danger of losing accreditation for preparing students for college. A five-page letter from an accreditation committee detailed the troubles, which included mold, leaky pipes, and science labs without functioning equipment. The school had inadequate staffing and offered limited access to technology for students and instructors.
The School Department delayed some fixes to the building to close a $28 million budget gap, Wilder said. In the coming year, Brighton High’s budget will increase by 5 percent.
Headmaster Fredrick H. McDowell Jr. sent an e-mail to school administrators saying Connolly used incorrect information in his speech, but McDowell did not cite specifics.
“Boston is a very political city,” he wrote in the e-mail, “but such commentary is not helpful if we are to come together to solve real problems.” McDowell did not return a call seeking further comment.
The skirmish could be the first of many between Connolly and the Menino administration if the mayor runs for reelection. Jon Romano managed Michael F. Flaherty Jr.’s unsuccessful campaign to unseat Menino in 2009 and recalled how daunting it was facing an incumbent who had held office for almost a generation.
“I don’t think there’s any there there to attack the mayor for not doing a good job with the city,” Romano said. “But on education, I think it’s his weakness, his Achilles’ heel.”
Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political science professor, said making education the centerpiece of a campaign would not galvanize enough support to defeat a popular incumbent. “If Mayor Menino decides to run for reelection, he is an overwhelming favorite,” Berry said. “But if Menino stumbles, if somewhere along the campaign he has another health episode, Connolly will be the only one there standing.
“It’s sort of a gruesome scenario,” Berry said. “But this is politics.”
As Connolly delivered his speech outside the high school, a crowd of roughly 40 supporters held royal blue signs with bright orange stripes that said, “John Connolly for Mayor.”
Natercia Dias, a mother of three from Dorchester, said this was the first time she had been involved in a political campaign. Dias has two children who wake up at 5 a.m. to catch buses to Wellesley, where they attend classes as part of a program that sends urban children to suburban schools.
“They want to walk to school,” said Dias, who lives across the street from Sarah Greenwood K-8 School. “Why do they have to go so far to get the education they deserve?”