In his final State of the City address before his reelection campaign, Mayor Martin J. Walsh trumpeted his record on public education Tuesday evening and pledged to file legislation that would “finally eliminate the opportunity gap’’ for the city’s youngest residents.
The mayor, who struggled initially to get his universal pre-kindergarten plan off the ground, proposed a new funding stream for the education initiative from a state surplus fund.
“It’s only fair that Boston’s success benefits all Boston’s children,’’ Walsh said in his annual address at Symphony Hall.
Governor Charlie Baker, who attended Walsh’s speech, said he would “take a look at” the mayor’s proposal as part of budget deliberations.
Walsh’s remarks, before 2,500 people, came three days ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump and as hundreds of city residents were gearing up to protest. Walsh, who will be in Washington at a US Conference of Mayors winter meeting this week, said he will not attend Trump’s inauguration Friday. He said he will attend the women’s march in Boston the next day.
In his speech, Walsh sounded familiar themes of togetherness and resiliency, vowing to fight “for our values.” Unlike his first State of the City address in 2015, which laid out his vision for the city, Tuesday’s remarks emphasized how he plans to carry his plans forward, he said.
“I will fight for families. I will fight for our seniors and our children, for our veterans, our immigrants,’’ Walsh said. “ . . . We are in this together.”
The mayor’s pre-kindergarten plan was one of several initiatives Walsh highlighted in his hourlong speech, which also encapsulated many of the broad themes he has promoted throughout his administration. Walsh reiterated a previous promise to use $100 million from the sale of the Winthrop Square Garage to revitalize neighborhoods like East Boston and South Boston. He pledged to find temporary space for library services in Chinatown and create trauma teams in five neighborhoods to quickly aid families after violent episodes.
The mayor painted a picture of Boston as thriving economically, with perfect triple-A bond ratings. He said the city added 60,000 jobs during his three years in office, offered free community college tuition to most public high school graduates, gave homeowners tax relief, and saw about 19,000 homes be built.
Walsh said he and the city have grown together, noting that his administration has worked to close the gender wage gap, boosted arts and culture, promoted innovation, and crafted plans for the future.
“When we pitched Boston as the world’s innovation leader, [General Electric] and many others responded,’’ Walsh said. “Our goal is more than new logos in the skyline. It’s good jobs and training for all.”
At times, Walsh sounded as though he was in full campaign mode, as if he was testing the case he plans to make to voters this year in what is expected to be a lively contest between him and City Councilor Tito Jackson, the only other high-profile candidate who has announced a mayoral bid this year.
In his announcement last week, Jackson cited the city’s deal with General Electric as an example of what he said is Walsh’s tendency to back high-end ventures at the expense of working families who can no longer afford to live in the city.
Jackson has sharply and repeatedly criticized Walsh’s priorities on public education, saying the mayor underfunded the schools and “turned his back” on students, teachers, and parents.
In his speech, the mayor attempted to demonstrate that he is making progress on fulfilling promises he made to overhaul public education when he ran for the office in 2013. As a candidate, Walsh vowed all of the city’s 4-year-olds would have access to high-quality pre-kindergarten seats and that he would develop a $1 billion plan to renovate and build schools.
To that end, Walsh announced Tuesday that he would file a home-rule petition that would generate enough money, $16.5 million, to cover the cost of creating high-quality pre-kindergarten seats for more than 1,300 children who attend subpar programs.
The proposal would have the state redirect money to the city from the state Convention Center Fund, which typically runs a surplus that state lawmakers use to balance the state budget.
“Our proposal is funded by tourism taxes, already paid in Boston, that produce the annual surplus in the Convention Center Fund,” Walsh said.
Baker, speaking to reporters after Walsh’s speech, said he did not want to address the mayor’s proposal until he understood the details.
“It’s the first I’ve heard of it. Obviously we will take a look at it,’’ said Baker, adding that it would have to be addressed during the budget process. “But it’s an interesting idea.”
Walsh said city officials have talked to members of the Baker administration about using the surplus, but he acknowledged he had not gone through “the finer details” of his plan with them.
The mayor said he wants to take the taxes paid in Boston for things like trolley tours and Duck Boat rides, and use that money to fund his initiative.
The money would be used to create additional high-quality seats in the school system or to help private preschool programs. Neighborhoods such as Dorchester, Hyde Park, and East Boston have a shortage of high-quality seats, while other neighborhoods like Brighton and Charlestown have nearly enough or, in some cases, a surplus.
Walsh, however, was vague about when the much-anticipated school construction plan would be completed. He said the plan would be released in coming weeks, but the document, according to aides, would only be a rundown on the repair needs for each school and whether the buildings offer the right kind of infrastructure for a 21st century education, such as offering dedicated spaces for music and art programs or the ability to provide high-speed Internet access.
The construction plan has been a lightning rod for more than a year. Many of the city’s schools are educating a fraction of the students they once did, raising concerns about school consolidation and closings – a move that many parents, students, and teachers oppose.
Walsh steered clear of that controversial topic in his speech, and it remains unclear if or when any decisions will be made about school closings in coming months.
“It’s too early to talk about any type of closing. We may not have to close any schools,’’ Walsh told reporters after his speech, adding that the city will take a hard look at grade configurations — which he said is not a sustainable model.
Walsh’s address touched on the state of housing, transportation, and crime in Boston.
He said the city is surpassing its housing goals in every income bracket and that officials are working with residents to “identify the right places for growth.”
Major crime is down 9 percent, a statistic that Walsh said has helped to make Boston one of the safest big cities in the country. There were 45 homicides last year, the mayor said. In his speech, he recognized the members of the new police cadet program and said the city has created new trauma teams — in Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, East Boston, and Jamaica Plain — that will coordinate responses immediately after a violent crime.
Similar teams are already in place.
Among his transportation initiatives, Walsh announced a plan to bring cutting-edge traffic-light technology to Boston’s busiest streets. The new signals would adapt to traffic in real time and work together to keep it flowing, Walsh added.
After the speech, Walsh was asked whether references in his speech were a counter to Jackson’s criticism of him.
“I’ve been the mayor for three years and it’s what I’m building on,’’ Walsh said. “I will continue to do it as mayor.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated ths amount Mayor Walsh had promised to use from the sale of the Winthrop Square Garage to revitalize local neighborhoods.