Andrew Kenneally, former aide to City Councilor-at-Large and mayoral hopeful Michael F. Flaherty, and ex-Nantucket Selectman Doug Bennett both said they want to bring back neighborhood schools in order to save money spent on busing.
Scotland Willis also strongly advocated neighborhood schools, but stressed the prospective social benefits - that good schools close to students' homes would lead to increased participation in school activities and, he argued, "a sense of relationships and unity between students, schools, parents and teachers and administrators" - more than the savings.
With an eye on reducing transportation costs, BPS Superintendent Dr. Carol R. Johnson earlier this year proposed changing the district's method of assigning students, but some critics balked, arguing that a return to neighborhood schools would eliminate the opportunity for low-income and minority students to attend higher-performing schools in more affluent areas.
Sean Ryan, a Fenway Park hot dog vendor and libertarian whose answers generally reflected a desire for smaller government, said he strongly supports allowing the charter school system to expand. Jackson said he supports charter schools and public schools, and suggested looking at public schools that work and using them as models to improve all schools.
Murphy suggested that instead of reinstituting neighborhood schools, the city could operate the busing far more efficiently.
"As a transportation manager in a prior life, I can tell you we don't do [busing] well," said Murphy, who served as vice president of the transit company Autobus Inc. from 1979 to 1984, according to his council biography.
"We don't fill up the buses, we don't route them well," he continued. "So instead of 700 vehicles each day, we could run 350," and the saved money should go directly into services like after-school programs and English language instruction for non-native speakers, which are important for the reducing dropout rate, he said.
On the state's Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system, all candidates were in agreement: Yes, it needs reform.
But while none answered the second part of the CORI question - how to balance protecting employers' rights with instituting changes that remove impediments to ex-offenders' finding employment or housing - some offered more details than others on how they would change the system.
"The CORI system is not supposed to be one strike and you're out," said Murphy, who gave the most detailed answer. "I authored two pieces of legislation on the Boston City Council on how the city of Boston deals with people with criminal records."
Murphy listed four changes included in his bills: eliminating "cross-identity" issues by instituting measures to ensure that offenses appearing on a record were actually committed by that individual, and not by someone who shares the same name; limiting CORI to open cases and convictions, not dismissals or acquittals; reducing the time it takes to seal a CORI record from 15 years to 7 for a felony and from 10 to 3 for a misdemeanor; and, he said, "to make sure there's a nexus between what somebody did and what job they're applying for."
Pressley said her father was incarcerated for 16 years of her life, so she knows the struggles faced by those trying to re-enter society after paying their debts. She called for "a nuanced approach that balances safety concerns but also allows second chances."
The candidates were evenly split on whether they supported the recent meals option tax instituted by the city to increase revenue. Those that supported it cited the real need for funds to support the continuation of services and retention of teachers, police officers and firefighters. Those opposed argued that the tax hurts small businesses and consumers at a time when the economic downturn is already causing plenty of pain.
Bennett said the tax increase "hurts you and I - it costs more for us to eat out at local restaurants." He said Mayor Thomas M. Menino is sitting on a rainy day fund of $800 million that should be used to fill budget gaps rather than tax increases.
González promised to work for transparency in city government.
"When have you seen a city budget? You haven't," he said, and pledged to change that.
González also took a moment to note - to great applause - that this group of at-large challengers was the most diverse and dynamic field of candidates he has seen.
Erline Belton, 65, of Roxbury, attended with her daughter, Dawn Morse, also of Roxbury. Belton said she was familiar with the candidates "on a surface level," and was hoping to hear specifics during the forum.
Belton and Morse both said they felt the important issues were well-covered, though Belton said she would have liked to hear more discussion of the role of the mayor and the balance of power in city government. But, most importantly, she said, "It was great to see that they showed up, that they made the time for us."
The forum was hosted by South End News, Bay Windows, United South End Settlements, Congregation Am Tikva, the Bay State Stonewall Democrats, ¿Oíste?, El Mundo and the Log Cabin Republicans.
The Sept. 22 primary election will narrow the field to eight finalists, who will compete for four at-large seats in the Nov. 3, 2009, election. Voters can cast ballots for up to four at-large candidates in both elections.(p1)
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