City Council Candidate Chat: Chris Conroy

This is the 31st in a series of conversations with candidates for Boston City Council. Chris Conroy of Roxbury is running for an at-large seat.

David S. Bernstein: Why are you in this race, along with 18 other people, for an at-large City Council seat?

Chris Conroy: It’s the first real open mayoral election in the last 30 years, and I think the city has a question that it will answer by electing certain officials to represent them. The question is: Can we get beyond the constraints of our budget, to reform our education system, and to reform what we really haven’t talked about, which is a major youth jobs crisis in our city? And by youth I’m talking about kids 18 to 24, and upward into their mid-20s. We need leadership on the ground level, to make sure that parents, students, and teachers have a voice in city government, where they can have input and really have a say in how the city will shape its education policy. In addition to that, we really need to develop a jobs plan, and that plan really has to focus on the significant population of young adults who are out of work, out of school, and essentially out of the game. I’ve done both of those things in my career.

Your question about getting beyond the constraints of budgets—is this the time to start spending more? Or is it possible to make the gains you’re talking about without putting at risk some of the city’s financial stability?

I mean that we need to think creatively about how we’re connecting our schools and our local institutions to some of the bigger institutions around the city. Our colleges and universities, our financial institutions, our technology industries, our biotech industry, our health care systems—these are areas of our economy that are growing. We should be connecting those resources to our schools, and making schools the centers of our communities again. At Codman Academy I developed a special education classroom with a team over there, that served students with exceptional learning needs. The great thing about being able to do that in a place like Codman, is you’re embedded within a community health center in that school, so you have the ability to get public health, mental health services, and social support those students need to be able to come into the day ready to learn. That is something we should have available at every single school.

The city’s debate over this, led by the mayoral race, is likely to divide candidates largely into pro-teachers-union and anti-teachers-union, isn’t it? And with your history with charter schools, and working for Stand For Children, aren’t you likely to be labeled as an anti-union candidate?

Well I certainly hope not. I grew up in a household where both my parents were educators. A significant chunk of my mother’s side of the family is in education. I started off working at the Academy Patrick Gavin [corrected] Middle School as a fellow in partnership with Citizens Schools. I understand the challenges that come with both kinds of schools. I went to a Catholic school, so there was a different set of benefits and challenges that come with that institution. I’ve seen a very broad set of schools, and it really doesn’t matter if you’re talking about private, public, or charter, the question is how we are going to make all of those different schools work together? And work together for Boston students. There are some issues where it comes down to the teachers contract. I worked on the Boston United For Students Coalition. For me, I’m pro-teachers union, because they serve a purpose in making sure that teachers have the wages that they deserve, the working environment they deserve, and the political representation they need to be respected in terms of their profession. And I’m also pro-equity for our students in terms of our public schools, and I am for high-performing schools, however that needs to happen. My contention is that a charter school can do that, if it’s done the right way. Those are complex issues; driving people into the black-or-white answer are you pro-union are you anti-union, are you pro-charter school are you against the charter school, really starts to inhibit our ability to solve the problem which is how do you have a great school in every neighborhood and ensure that every child and parent have the option of choosing a school that is right for them in the city of Boston.

I know you just spoke against black-or-white questions, but I do want to ask you directly about the teachers contract you were just talking about, which passed in the City Council 12 to 1 with John Connolly as the only dissenting vote. Had you been on the council at the time, would you have voted yes or no to accept the new contract that was negotiated by the Menino administration?

From our perspective, when we were working as a coalition, we supported the contract and felt that it made progress toward the four goals that we had set up. The extended learning day piece was not what we wanted, but we had a commitment from the teachers union to come up with a suggested plan for how an extended learning day could work. The Boston Teachers Union has released its own plan for what an extended learning day would look like, and it’s actually modeled a lot on what the Edwards Middle School has done successfully in terms of extending their learning day. We think that the BTU’s call to say you have to pay teachers what they’re due if they’re going to spend time after school, is a reasonable one. So I would have voted for the teachers contract.

You talked about a youth jobs crisis, and it’s always talked about as youth jobs, youth violence – but as you say, we’re really talking about adults, up to age 30, that are the immediate problem. I wonder whether the public is willing to get behind social programs and spending if they think it’s teens and pre-teens, but not programs to help young adults, particularly men in their 20s.

Is it harder to get policymakers to invest in those kind of programs? Traditionally that’s been the problem. At the federal level, during the ’80s, they put out several studies that showed that the workforce development programs at the federal, state, and local level were being defunded. But, having worked with YearUp, which is a good example of how this can work, if you’re bringing employers to the table, we’ve had success with young men, some of whom have been involved in the justice system previously. I’ve seen young people have within six months of professional training, in professional skills and in a specific technical skill; go into a six-month internship, have a hands-on learning experience, with a private company; and then after that year 85 percent of those young people are able to capture a job in IT or finance, that is paying on average $30,000 a year. You have to make sure that you have employers coming in and investing in this process,We can create a pathway for young people coming out of our high schools and our community colleges, to enter into these jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. I’ve seen it work on a small scale, and we can scale it up.

You did a social media, crowdsource experiment with your campaign, coming up with “New Boston Rules.” Did you learn anything from the process that could apply to generating ideas as a city councilor?

We had to do a lot of work up front to recruit individuals to get involved with it, offline, before we got online – that’s part of building a base. But once we got it rolling, what I learned from it is you can build out web platforms and technology at a local level, where you can get a lot of input from local citizens about issues that are important to him. That’s the kind of participation you’re hoping to see from citizens, and if you give them that venue, that’s possible. That’s what I’m hoping city government will look like in the next 10, 20 years, is something that utilizes social media and the sharing economy to get a much richer view of the neighborhoods and what citizens want.

Your mother, if I understand correctly, grew up in Savin Hill along with some dozen or so siblings. I’m curious: how many relatives do you have who are registered voters in the city of Boston who can cast a vote for you?

[Laughs] If I had to count them all? I would have to say, in the Boston area we probably have between 50 and 60 registered voters now.


Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.