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RCC forum lets at-large candidates talk CORI, schools

Victor Kakulu

A number of the candidates vying for an at-large seat on Boston’s City Council gathered for a forum at Roxbury Community College’s Media Arts Center last Wednesday evening, aiming to address a host of issues before next Tuesday’s preliminary election.

Ten of the 15 at-large candidates appeared at the forum — Felix G. Arroyo, Ego Ezedi, Robert Fortes, Tomas Gonzalez, Andrew Kenneally, Hiep Nguyen, Sean Ryan, Jean-Claude Sanon, Bill Trabucco and Scotland Willis. Incumbent City Councilor-at-Large Stephen Murphy was not in attendance, while fellow at-large councilor John Connolly appeared, but left to attend another event.

Candidates Tito Jackson and Doug Bennett did not attend, while Ayanna Pressley arrived near the end of the forum.

While the event, hosted by Open Media Boston, was sparsely attended, the audience did include a mixture of residents comprised of educators, elderly citizens and students.

 Reggie Alouidor, a 22-year-old Roslindale resident and Northeastern University senior, was one of them.

 “I missed the mayoral debate last week, so it was important to make it here tonight for this,” said Alouidor, who is majoring in accounting and finance. “I’m interested in what the candidates have to say on things like CORI.”

The state’s CORI, or Criminal Offender Record Information, law has long been a controversial issue.

The law was enacted in 1972 to consolidate information on criminal offenders and make it easier for law enforcement to access that information. Over the years, with the intent of safeguarding the public from potentially dangerous ex-offenders, state agencies, school administrators, housing authorities and employers have gained access to the records.

However, critics argue that such broad access to CORI reports presents a serious impediment to ex-offenders — including those without criminal convictions — who are looking to take care of themselves and their families.

“We must understand that the impact of people coming out of prison without a re-entry opportunity has a prolonged effect on our community,” said Willis, who proposed creating a City Council committee devoted specifically to CORI reform.

While Willis’ suggestion elicited nods of agreement from many in attendance, it was Haitian American candidate Sanon’s charge that CORI laws are “unjust” that prompted an outburst of applause.

 “CORI has become a destructible unit in our society that causes us more pain than anything else,” said Sanon, who stressed the need for the city’s laws to be created “from the heart.”

“It is not enough to be tough on crime,” Sanon added. “We must be smarter in our approach.”

In the area of education, by far the most heavily discussed topic at the forum, attendee Aaliyah Turner, a parent and a former teacher in the Boston Public Schools (BPS), argued that the BPS system lacks teachers that represent the cultures of its students.

“How do we break in teachers that represent the dynamic yet changing landscape of Boston?” Turner asked the gathered candidates.

In his answer, Gonzalez, former aide to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said that 60 percent of BPS teachers live outside of Boston — a figure he said needed to change.

 “Just like our construction labor, our teachers must also come from our city,” said Gonzalez.

 In addition to his support of a residency mandate for would-be teachers, Gonzalez called for reform in the method for how the city hires teachers.

Ryan, one of three Republicans in the at-large race — the others being Bennett and Fortes — disagreed with Gonzalez’s take on the residency mandate, and said he favored a move to allow more schools to operate independently as charter schools.

 “We keep trying to fight the same problems with the same government solutions, and I’m saying we should let the people come with solutions,” said Ryan.

 Ryan pointed out that there are 8,000 students on the waiting list for charter schools in the city of Boston, which he said speaks to an “obvious desire” among parents.

 “Parents need as much choice as possible,” he said. “The only way to give them many different choices is to have lots of different models. And the only way to do this is by a decentralized school system.”

Willis supported the idea of increased diversity among BPS teachers and called for a campaign to promote and encourage “more people of color [to] apply and pursue careers in the public school system.”

Bill Trabucco said he was skeptical that solutions to the problems facing BPS students could be determined without directly approaching the students.

“The schools aren’t working,” said Trabucco. “We need to go right to the schools and have the kids address why they don’t want to stay in school. That’s when we can start solving the problem.”

Republican Fortes, who is black, called education “the civil rights issue of our time.” Fortes joined Ryan in calling for lifting the cap on charter schools.

 “I do not believe in one-size-fits-all. I believe in choices,” said Fortes. “Every family should have the opportunity to educate their child as they see fit.”

Audience member Julio Henriquez, a member of the board of the Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School in Jamaica Plain, said that of the approximately 56,000 students enrolled in the BPS system, some 10,000 drop out by the second half of the school year, leading many to wonder how the system is failing with an average of between $15,000 and $17,000 budgeted to educate each student, respectively.

Arroyo, son of former City Councilor-at-Large Felix D. Arroyo, recalled how he and his wife Jasmine personally paid for the books and furnishings of the first-grade classroom where she was set to begin teaching at the Joseph Lee Elementary School on Talbot Avenue. He said he felt the BPS’ issues are, in part, a matter of distribution of resources.

“We spend $800 million in our Boston Public Schools,” said Arroyo. “But it is the City Council’s job to ensure that after a budget is passed, those funds are spent wisely. My commitment is to make sure those funds make it to the classroom.”

Sanon returned to his “from the heart” sentiment for his concluding remarks on education.

“Education for our children is a matter the city must deal with from the heart, not from the pocket,” he said. “As the adults, we must see to it that changes are being made at every level. Because if our children are failing, we as parents, administrators and city officials have all indeed failed.”