SOMETIMES A little-known candidate in a crowded race catches your eye — and leaves you wanting to know a lot more. That’s the way it was after a recent mayoral campaign forum at Boston Public Library. A candidate I’d never actually seen was offering some of the most interesting ideas and observations.
Thus it was that, on Wednesday, I found myself having coffee at Ashley’s Breakfast Shoppe in Dorchester with John Barros, the former executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.
During his years leading that nonprofit, which works to boost the Dudley Street area of Roxbury and north Dorchester, Barros did on a neighborhood level the kind of things a mayor does on a larger scale. The nonprofit focuses on promoting economic development; facilitating affordable housing; improving neighborhood schools; establishing amenities like community centers and parks; offering youth programs and leadership training; improving public safety; and redeveloping blighted properties.
Barros, who is a first generation Cape Verdean-American, grew up in the Dudley neighborhood and had his first experience in politics there. At 17, he was elected to the nonprofit’s board; area residents had to be 18 to vote, but there was no such restriction on serving on the board, he says.
After graduating from Boston College High School, he went to Dartmouth College, and then worked a few years in New York City, in the insurance business. And then, in 1999, the executive directorship of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative came open. Barros was hired as interim chief that year, and given the job outright in 2000. In that role, he also helped start the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School, which opened last fall and features extended learning time and programming that runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. He has served two and a half years on the Boston School Committee. Oh, yes, and in his spare time, he co-opened the Restaurante Cesaria, next to Ashley’s on Bowdoin Street.
There’s a tendency, in races like this one, to treat elected officials as the only serious candidates. And holding office obviously makes it easier to raise money and attract headlines. But someone who spent more than a decade running a nonprofit with assets of some $6 million, an annual budget of about $1.2 million, and a staff of 16 full-timers is worthy of the same kind of voter consideration as, say, a city councilor.
Certainly Barros, who is now on leave from his job, can already claim to have made a significant difference in this neighborhood of 25,000. And if the 39-year-old community leader were mayor? Education would be far and away his top priority — and he’s put considerable thought into what he’d do.
“Longer school days are absolutely essential,” he says. And in every school. He wants a staggered teaching schedule, under which some teachers wouldn’t start until later in the morning, as a way to extend the school day.
He favors pushing decision-making down to the school level, but says having those autonomies will also require much more flexibility to redesign educational offerings. He wants to move to a system where one application could be used in all Boston public schools.
On charters, he’s fine with raising the cap, but wants charters to draw their students from nearby neighborhoods, so transportation dollars can be rededicated to actual education; that would mean having the Boston school system provide facilities for charters in some neighborhoods. Despite the currency the idea has gained with some in the city’s minority communities, Barros does not favor returning to an elected school committee, fearing that would inject reelection politics into policy decisions.
Mayor Menino also wanted a longer school day and more flexibility — only to run up against the famously obdurate Boston Teachers Union. So how would Barros get that done?
“We have the tools to move autonomy to our schools, decentralize decision-making, and create longer school days for all of our schools with the in-district charter model,” says Barros. He promises he’ll have a policy pronouncement on that very issue as the campaign progresses.
I am one Bostonian who will be watching and listening with interest. Yes, Barros is a long shot in this campaign, but make no mistake, this smart, substantive, likable community leader is a very impressive guy. No matter how this particular race goes, he has a promising future.