Mayor Martin J. Walsh vigorously defended his commitment to Boston’s public schools Tuesday night and urged education advocates to soften the often divisive rhetoric that pits families of traditional students against those who attend charter schools.
Speaking to an audience of 2,500 at Symphony Hall, Walsh devoted much of his annual State of the City address to education even as parents braved frigid temperatures outside to protest what they contend have been repeated cuts to individual schools. Inside, the mayor recognized hundreds of students he invited to the speech to underscore what he described as his administration’s accomplishments in the classroom.
“When it comes to our schools, they deserve to know that their mayor stands behind them,” Walsh said, adding, “I want you and everyone to know: The Boston Public Schools are my priority.”
Making Boston a national model for excellence in urban education, Walsh said, will require a unified effort. But the mayor said the current “conversation around our schools concerns me.”
“Instead of unity, too often we’ve seen schools pitted against one another, by adults,” Walsh said. “Tonight, I’m calling on everyone to come together to back all our children, all our teachers, and all our schools. That means fair and sustainable funding for both district and charter schools.”
The mayor also pushed Governor Charlie Baker and legislative leaders to fund full-day preschool for all Boston 4-year-olds, an initiative estimated to cost $56 million. During his mayoral campaign, Walsh promised to implement universal preschool and proposed leasing City Hall to developers to pay for the expansion.
After the election, Walsh abandoned the City Hall plan, and after two years in office, the administration has been able to increase preschool rolls only by about 5 percent.
“Hundreds of children still sit on waiting lists, their parents frustrated and already doubting that the system will ever work for them,” Walsh said. “We’ve stretched funding as far as it will go. And we are not alone. I ask leadership at the State House, and every legislator, to work with Boston, with Lawrence, with Salem, with Attleboro, and other cities and towns to expand access to high-quality prekindergarten.”
The speech Tuesday night marked the midway point of Walsh’s first term. The mayor can look ahead from a position of strength: He has $2.25 million in his campaign account and no significant challengers on the horizon as he gears up for reelection in 2017.
Last week, the administration scored arguably its most consequential accomplishment when General Electric Co. announced it would relocate its headquarters to Boston, lured by as much as $145 million in state subsidies and city tax breaks.
But 2015 also proved to be a bruising year for the mayor. Record-breaking snow frayed patience as the city struggled to plow some streets. Walsh had been a leading proponent of Boston hosting the 2024 Olympics, but the administration was forced to abandon the bid in the face of public opposition.
Most recently, he endured criticism for a plan to host an IndyCar race on a 2.2-mile temporary street track in the Seaport District over Labor Day weekend for the next five years. The Coalition Against IndyCar Boston recently launched a website calling on the city to cancel the race.
In his State of the City address, Walsh unveiled a slew of other new initiatives, which include $1 million for local artists and a task force to study raising Boston’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. The mayor announced that Sara Myerson will be the new planning director at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. She was hired to analyze the Olympic bid and was kept on as director of a planning initiative called Imagine Boston 2030.
The city will expand the administration’s transit-oriented development effort, which seeks to revitalize urban stretches along the MBTA’s Red and Orange lines. The first phase targeted Dorchester Avenue in South Boston and a stretch in Jamaica Plain from Forest Hills to Jackson Square. The mayor said he will add Dudley Square and Glover’s Corner along Freeport Street in Dorchester. A Boston Redevelopment Authority task force will study the areas and gather community input.
Walsh also announced a new Office of Housing Stability to try to help people remain in their communities in the face of rising rents and sky-high housing costs. The administration will invest in parks across the city, including the renovation of Ramsay Park.
For much of the speech, Walsh focused on schools. He defended his tenure by listing accomplishments: extending the school day 40 minutes for elementary and middle school students, appointing Tommy Chang as superintendent, and hiring 24 new principals. He noted that for the third straight year, he will send a budget to the City Council that increases school funding — a total increase of nearly $90 million since he took office.
After the speech, Walsh said he had spoken with the governor about helping to pay for preschool for 4-year-olds. “I don’t know if he supports it,” Walsh said. “Obviously, they have budget challenges.”
A statement from Baker’s office did not directly address whether the governor supports using state dollars to pay for universal preschool.
Parents and students protesting outside Symphony Hall took aim at what the superintendent estimated was a $50 million school budget deficit, which parents say will result in cutting teachers, librarians, and basic programs. The Walsh administration said the shortfall is closer to $10 million. It has proposed increasing the school budget by $13.5 million, but said costs increased by more than $20 million.
“He’s balancing the budget on the backs of our families,’’ said Kristin Johnson, a Jamaica Plain mother of two Ellis Mendell School students.
Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the state subsidies as tax breaks in regards to General Electric.