Marty Walsh sees lessons in controversies

Boston, MA: 11-7-17: Boston Mayor Martin Walsh celebrated his re-election to a second term at a party held in the Grand Ballroom of the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh celebrated his re-election to a second term at a party held in the Grand Ballroom of the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel.

For Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the weeks since his reelection in November could have been a joyride into the holidays and Inauguration Day. But first came word that Boston Public Schools had been fined by the Internal Revenue Service for misusing student activity accounts, an unusual rebuke that Walsh initially said he was not aware of.

Then, Walsh took fire for the unpopular rollout of new school start times, a plan that Superintendent Tommy Chang was eventually forced to reverse amid protests by parents and city councilors.

In an interview Thursday, Walsh called the controversies learning opportunities. He said he remains confident in Chang, as well.


“I think there needed to be more communication. . . . The strategy could have been better,” the mayor said, referring to the school start time dispute.

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“Some changes have to be made,” he said, indicating he still supports new school start times in some form. “Hopefully, we’ll take time to do our homework, to make sure these changes could still happen.”

In advance of Inauguration Day on Monday — where former vice president Joseph Biden is slated to preside over the swearing-in ceremony — Walsh reflected on his first term in office and outlined his vision for his next four years, reiterating his push to expand affordable housing, enhance public safety, and improve public schools.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons in the first term,” the mayor said in an interview with the Globe from his fifth-floor office overlooking Faneuil Hall.

He said his administration worked in the first term to identify long-term strategies, which were outlined in a “Boston 2030” visionary report.


But now, he said, “the planning stage is over, and it’s implementation stage.”

Walsh said he does not regret the effort to revise school start times, saying the idea was discussed at more than a dozen community meetings, with tens of thousands of people. The plan would have allowed most high school students to start their day later but also required many younger students to start and end their days much earlier. The district contended the education of the students would be enhanced, and that it also hoped to cut costs with the reconfiguration.

Yet Walsh acknowledged that new school times would be a huge disruption for the schedules of many families. “It’s life-changing for a lot of people, because it is a drastic step,” Walsh said.

The plan has been scrapped for now, but Walsh said he remains committed to revisiting it. He also defended Chang, saying, “He inherited, as I did, a structural deficit in the budget. . . . That’s a big problem.”

“I think we have to do a better job articulating to parents, about what we want to do here,” he said. “If this was business, this would have been changed a long time ago. We’re doing generational change here in Boston, and it’s about how do we bring more efficiencies and better education to the classrooms by providing more resources. That’s what we have to do.”


Walsh has said the IRS discovered errors that dated back to previous administrations, and that Chang has since improved oversight of the student activity funds. The audit also found problems related to the city payrolls, which officials say they have since fixed.

Walsh said his recent reelection campaign helped serve as a reminder of what more the city needs to do: improve the middle class, expand affordable housing, and improve schools.

“It’s really focusing on middle class, and focusing on pulling people into the middle class. That’s really our goal,” he said. “How do we move our city going forward, across the board.”

Walsh enters his second term with some changes to his administration. His chief of staff, Dan Koh, stepped down in August to run for Congress, and he has been replaced by Dave Sweeney, who previously served as Walsh’s top financial officer.

Sweeney will be replaced by Emme Handy, who will serve as chief financial officer, collector-treasurer, and chief of administration and finance. She previously worked as an analyst and policy manager for the state Senate Committee on Ways and Means. Marty Martinez, who previously headed the Mass Mentoring Partnership, took over as chief for health and human services, replacing Felix G. Arroyo, who was fired in the summer amid sexual harassment allegations.

Walsh said many of his administration’s challenges will be in coping with the city’s growth, saying an influx of new residents and longtime residents wanting to stay here will push Boston’s populations to levels not seen in half a century. The city has worked to build new housing — 5,000 new units built or permitted in the last year, 1,000 of which were for low-income families — but still struggles to meet the demand.

The mayor said the city must also look at transportation needs and examine its public transit infrastructure.

Walsh noted he recently met with the mayors of Greater Boston to establish a regional housing plan. And the city has a “Growth Zone” plan to help targeted neighborhoods develop.

He said public safety remains a priority. The city has seen 57 homicides this year, lower than comparable-sized cities. And still, the mayor said, “we still have too many guns on the street.”

On Monday, at his inauguration, Walsh said he plans to discuss housing, job creation efforts, and pathways to college — “efforts to improve the middle class.”

“These are things we’ve been tracking for the last four years; they haven’t changed,” he said.

Walsh said he plans to focus on improving race relations in Boston. The mayor recently hosted a second discussion on race in Boston and said more conversations need to be held.

Discussing his efforts to boost minority hiring in city government, he said, is not enough.

“It’s more about understanding, when people talk about racism, what that means,” he said.

The mayor said he was heartened by the city’s response in August to a “free speech” rally on Boston Common a week after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., ended in violence. Thousands of counterprotesters turned out in Boston, but the event was largely peaceful.

“I think that was important for us as a city, a big step for us as a city,” he said. “We still have work to do though. That will be on the agenda for 2018, and it’s been on the agenda since 2014.”

Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia