Boston City Councilor John Connolly prides himself on knowing more about public education than any of his 11 opponents seeking the mayor’s office. But what good is such knowledge when Connolly descends into political pandering on school issues, as he did last week last by voting in favor of a $115 million loan order to build a new high school in Mattapan?
Boston already wastes about $8 million annually to maintain 3,000 empty high school seats. Outgoing School Superintendent Carol Johnson isn’t a whiz at facility planning. But she knew enough to give the City Council a heads-up last month via a memo on the School Department’s five-year facility plan: “We continue to have significant excess capacity in many of our high school buildings,’’ wrote Johnson, in boldface. By “excess capacity’’ Johnson meant that more than half of the seats are empty at English High, Jeremiah Burke High, Another Course to College, and Community Academy. And another handful of Boston high schools are operating with vacancy rates of 20 percent or more. If managers of commercial properties faced such vacancy rates, they’d be out on the street.
City Councilor Charles Yancey is behind the cockamamy loan order. Yancey, who is also running for mayor, has complained for many years that the largely minority and immigrant families in the Mattapan section of his district have no neighborhood high school. He is undeterred by the fact that high school attendance in Boston is at it lowest level since the late 1990s. Meanwhile, many of his constituents, like so many families citywide, are drawn to the city’s expanding charter schools for a better education. They accurately perceive that a longer school day and top-notch teachers offer more value than any shiny new building. Mattapan students would be better off with a free T pass that takes them to a high-performing charter school than anything Yancey has to offer.
Thankfully, the majority of council members didn’t get wrapped up in Yancey’s high school fantasy. The loan order went down to defeat by an 8 to 5 vote.
Connolly offered no substantive defense for his vote in favor of the unneeded high school. He called it a “shot across the bow of the Boston Public Schools’’ based on the system’s failure to do long-range facility planning. Huh? The system needs to accommodate more kids at the lower elementary grades. So Connolly’s answer is to burden the taxpayers with a $115 million White Elephant High.
This is a political calculation on Connolly’s part, pure and simple. He knows that the Mattapan high school issue resonates among some minority voters, especially older ones who admire Yancey for his persistence on the issue. All four of the council’s minority members — mayoral candidate Felix Arroyo, Ayanna Pressley, Tito Jackson, and Yancey — supported the loan order. By joining them, Connolly hopes to curry some favor among minority voters, especially should he emerge as one of the top two vote-getters in September and run off against a minority challenger in November.
City Councilors Rob Consalvo and Mike Ross, who are also running for mayor, voted against the $115 million loan order. Ross said minority members of his own staff were angry at him until he sat down with them to discuss city finances and school-age demographics. It was an even tougher vote for Consalvo, whose district includes parts of Mattapan and many minority voters.
Both Ross and Consalvo want to woo minority voters, too. But they took a principled vote suggesting that, if elected, they would be willing to take political risks to do what’s in the best interest of the entire city.
Connolly, meanwhile, is sending the opposite message, including hints at a recent candidates’ forum that he might support a return to an elected or partially-elected school board. It’s another issue that is popular among some minority voters. But it would be a real setback for quality education.
The mayorally appointed school board has proven its worth over 20 years. This arrangement makes the mayor directly accountable for the schools. That serves minority youngsters, who make up about 90 percent of the system. If elected mayor, Connolly would need such appointees to implement many of his creative ideas on education. Yet he says that he is only “leaning’’ toward retaining an appointed board.
Connolly has developed quite an eye for the voters. But he’s getting distracted from some important priorities along the way.