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Mayor Walsh's 2017 remarks to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau

March 1, 2017

Mayor's Office

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Mayor's Office

Mayor Martin J. Walsh delivered his remarks at the annual meeting of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau on March 1.

Thank you Matt [Keifer], thank you Sam [Tyler]. I'd like to start with an announcement. We learned yesterday that for the fourth year in a row, the City of Boston received perfect AAA bond ratings from both Moody's and Standard & Poor's. These ratings reward strong fiscal management by maximizing our access to capital.

That doesn’t happen by accident. Three years ago in my first address to the Research Bureau, I made a commitment to data-driven performance in city government. We started in 2014 by installing data dashboards and using metrics at cabinet meetings. In 2015, we formed a citywide Analytics Team to drive innovation across departments. In January of 2016 we took it to another level with CityScore, a groundbreaking management system that has earned international attention.

As a direct result of these efforts, in the last year alone, we increased the fire trucks that arrive in under 4 minutes by 4%. We increased the traffic signals repaired within 24 hours by 10%. And we increased 311 calls answered within 30 seconds to 92%.

Data is improving our performance, saving us money, and even saving lives. Last year I noticed on the CityScore dashboard that, for several days in a row, our ambulance response numbers were in the red. That means below the standard we set. I asked EMS, the Analytics Team, and the Budget Office to look at the issue and come up with solutions. The result was, in the FY17 budget, we decided to hire 20 additional EMTs and buy 10 new ambulances.

We didn’t just open up the checkbook. We made a sound investment. We project overtime costs will be down next year by 10% and revenue from insurance reimbursements will be up by 8%. It’s a net positive impact of more than $3 million. Most important, people are getting help more quickly.

When I looked at the dashboard and saw that red number, I didn’t see it as data. I was thinking about the people having medical crises and their families waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Many of us have been there, and it’s the longest wait of your life.“Data-driven” describes the tools we use to get there faster. But it’s more accurate to say our culture is people-driven and data-smart. This philosophy goes beyond city services. It guides our response to the most pressing policy challenges.

Consider the issue of economic opportunity.

In recent years, income and wealth inequality have moved to the center of that conversation. By one measure, Boston is among the most unequal cities. We are working to change that. But we want to do it in a way that lifts our people up, not just our numbers. Inequality metrics miss some things about Boston. For example, we provide a greater share of subsidized housing than any other city. And we have one of the biggest college and graduate student populations. If these lower-income residents couldn’t live here, we might look like a more equal city. But I submit that without public housing and universities, we’d lose something more. We wouldn’t be Boston.

The big drivers of inequality are global forces and national policies. Locally, our scope for action is better defined by mobility: the opportunity for people to get ahead in life and achieve financial security. As a people-driven, data-smart city, that’s what we devote our energy to advancing. Mobility requires education and job training, housing and transportation, health and quality of life. So it’s the goal in all our policy work.

For example, high rents are one of the biggest obstacles to mobility. That’s why our historic rate of housing production is one of our most important mobility strategies. By getting over 19,000 units either built or in construction, we’ve taken pressure off the existing housing stock where working families live. Average rents were down last year by 4%. New housing has put money back in working people’s pockets.

For many people, mobility means small business ownership. So we expanded citywide small business support. And today I can announce we are creating a Business Capital and Finance Unit. It will make loans to small businesses with minimum set-asides for historically under-served neighborhoods and people. We’re going to help more entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.

Above all, upward mobility today requires education. Public schools are the foundation of opportunity in our society. That’s why, in the last three years, we have prioritized data-smart reforms that close opportunity gaps and elevate all students. The data shows that five-year-olds with Child Savings Accounts are more likely to enroll in college or job training after high school. So we created accounts for kindergarteners, starting in 5 schools.

The data shows that more learning time improves student achievement. So we extended the school day for K-through-8 students, adding a total of 120 hours or the equivalent of 20 days per year.

The data shows that children of color are tracked out of the highest academic pathways as early as elementary school. So we are expanding access to rigorous curriculum in grades 4 through 6, as well as exam school test prep.

And the data shows that a debt-free path into college increases student enrollment. So we secured free tuition for eligible BPS graduates at three community colleges.

Finally, the data shows that there is no more proven educational investment than high-quality pre-kindergarten. Public pre-K means the world to families who want to give their kids the best possible start in school. The data backs them up. But it tells us that the impact depends on well-resourced, high quality classrooms. Multiple studies have shown that the Boston Public Schools program is the gold standard. It closes achievement gaps through third grade—for students lucky enough to get a seat. No child in our city should have to depend on luck for an equal education. That’s why we’ve increased enrollment by more than 700 students already. And it’s why we have designed a plan to provide universal access, funded by pre-existing revenues from tourism taxes levied in Boston.

I want to thank Speaker [Robert] DeLeo for making high-quality early education a priority this legislative session. The Speaker’s Business Advisory Commission found that high-quality pre-kindergarten increases the likelihood a student will graduate high school by 31%. And it increases the probability a student will attend college by more than 80%. Boston is ready and able to help the Commonwealth act on this data. I offer my support and my partnership to the Legislature in forging a plan to give all children the strong start they need and deserve.

We have begun building seamless education pipelines for every student, from cradle to career. The results so far are positive. High school graduation rates went up by nearly 2% last year, to a historic peak of 72.4%. But we still have years of hard work ahead, to get to where we really need to be. In that long view, a big limiting factor looms before us. It’s the infrastructure. Consider: two-thirds of our school buildings were built before World War II. That means they are 80, 90, 100 years old or more. Only half of those have ever been renovated. It’s been generations since a full-scale construction cycle was in place.

Just as important as their condition is their design. 20th-century buildings don’t have the spaces or systems to support 21st-century learning. Too many of our schools look like the old St. Margaret’s grammar school I went to. The sisters did a great job. But the desks were all in rows facing a chalkboard. And the technology sat in the A/V room down the hall. That won’t cut it today.

Today’s model classrooms are active, student-centered, accessible spaces, connected to worlds of knowledge far beyond their walls. They look like the innovative colleges and workplaces we want our students to be ready for. Boston is a global hub for technology and innovation. Our classrooms must prepare students to thrive in that world.

That’s why I’m proud to say that over the next 10 years, we will invest $1 billion in the facilities of the Boston Public Schools. Today we release the report that guides that investment. It’s called BuildBPS.

BuildBPS took a deeper dive than ever before into the facilities where our 56,000 students learn. We found that our current buildings can house about 69,000 students—if we do nothing to update their space or curriculum. But if we provided every student with the full range of resources we envision—like libraries, art rooms, STEM labs, and gyms—current capacity would be just under 56,000. If anything, we need more space. The challenge is not a history of declining enrollment. It’s a history of neglect.

That’s why BuildBPS will more than double our typical capital allocation for schools. We are able to do this for two reasons. First, our perfect bond ratings unlock unprecedented access to capital. Second, we have forged the City’s first strong working relationship with the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

The MSBA is the agency set up by the Commonwealth to help fund public school capital projects. Boston is the leading source of the sales taxes that fund the MSBA. $1 billion generated in our city has funded new schools in the suburbs and across the state since 2004. But despite being the biggest funder, and despite having the state’s biggest school district, Boston never drew in a significant way on MSBA funding.

Starting in 2014, we changed that. We focused on Boston’s next flagship school, the Dearborn 6-12 STEM Academy in Roxbury. This is a project the local community wanted for years. We moved it forward by allocating $36 million in City funds and securing a matching amount from the MSBA. And we made the community a partner in the process. We agreed the Dearborn should keep its identity and its students, as it expanded from a 6-8 middle school to a 6-12 high school. We overcame bureaucratic obstacles by standing strong together in our vision. As a result, the Dearborn STEM Academy will complete construction this year and open for students in 2018. It proves we can get beyond the status quo, because better schools are worth fighting for.

We also restarted projects with the Boston Arts Academy and the Quincy Upper School, along with $23 million in repairs and updates citywide. In total, the $61 million we have tapped since 2014 is more than the entire amount the City received from the MSBA in the 10 years prior to that. In the next 10 years, BuildBPS will combine $730 million in City bond proceeds with a target of at least $270 million in matching funds from the MSBA. I look forward to working with the City Council to get the ball rolling with a new capital budget this spring.

The foundations of every investment decision will be the educational vision of Dr. Tommy Chang and the Boston Public Schools; the planning principles outlined in BuildBPS; ongoing community input; and rigorous data. But as these projects begin to unlock new learning spaces, we want BPS to be free to do what it does best, which is educate students. So we will move construction responsibilities into a new schools unit in the City of Boston’s Public Facilities department. This unit will be dedicated to building, renovating, and upgrading schools. It will consolidate resources and expertise that are currently fragmented. And it will provide a single point of contact for private and public partners. This focus will allow us to finally put schools on a regular investment cycle, so they will never be neglected again.

BuildBPS is going to transform the process of school building in Boston. It’s also going to improve the politics. Decisions on which projects to prioritize will never be easy. But the scale of our investment allows us to move forward together as a district.

Just as important, we’ve made transparent engagement and dialogue central to the process. Today’s report reflects over a year of community surveys and site visits. Now we’ll embark on a new chapter of engagement: to hear what every community envisions for their schools, neighborhoods, and the District as a whole. In addition to releasing the BuildBPS report, today we’re launching a first-of-its-kind online digital tool, the BuildBPS Data Dashboard. This tool allows students, parents, teachers, and administrators to understand the data on their schools and use it to help decide what comes next.

Through the spring and fall, we’ll hold community workshops to develop and prioritize the first round of capital investments. As that first round of projects moves forward, the BuildBPS report will be updated. It’s a living document that will reflect the knowledge and innovation in the community.

Across the district, teachers, parents, and principals are already taking creative steps to modernize our schools. Two weeks ago I visited the Hernandez K-to-8 school in Roxbury. Parents and students are raising funds to transform their schoolyard into the kind of innovative outdoor learning space that should surround every single school. I’m happy to announce that in our FY2018 budget, we will allocate the funds needed to complete that project.

I’m inspired by the vision and initiative in our schools. We owe it to them to match their spirit and provide the resources they need so they can focus on teaching and learning. So as the long-term BuildBPS plan develops, we will help every school with projects they need right now. This year, we will launch a $13 million 21st-Century Schools Fund. Every school will have the opportunity to receive funding for new technology, new furniture, or whatever they need to modernize their learning spaces.

One of the planning principles of BuildBPS is to create flexible space that will allow our district to meet new potentials as our city and our world evolve. But to truly make our schools part of that evolution will require permanent, deep connections with the world beyond school walls. We need every university, hospital, business, and cultural institution in our city to be extensions of our classrooms—welcoming, inspiring, and training our students to participate fully in our city’s success.

To make that vision a reality, we’ve put a premium on building partnerships. We created InvestBPS, an adopt-a-school program with an easy-to-use online portal. We secured new corporate partners like General Electric and Lego Education. We’ve expanded partnerships with philanthropies like EdVestors and the Eos Foundation. And we’ve grown our Summer Jobs program to get young people experience in Boston’s workplaces. By the way, it’s time for my annual appeal. If you are not part of the Summer Jobs Program already, email my team at We can’t do this without your help.

Moving forward, as we build new learning spaces, we want to strengthen our ability to build new partnerships. So we’ve created a new post: managing director and senior advisor of external affairs. We’ve appointed former BPS Chief of Staff Dr. Makeeba McCreary. Makeeba has played a key role implementing BPS priorities, as well as taking the lead in public/private collaborations. That’s the right combination of experience. School partnerships today have to be about both maximizing funding sources and modernizing curriculum.

Frankly, I hope everyone in our employer community is thinking along the same lines. Good public education doesn’t just help students. By producing a better prepared workforce, it helps employers and strengthens our economy. So I want to appeal directly to the organizations represented here today: look into partnering with a school. It doesn’t take a massive investment. For as little as $2,500, you could provide Child Savings Accounts to an entire kindergarten class.

That’s just one example. We welcome employers to play from your strengths and use your imagination. You will not only improve student outcomes. You could help advance the skills needed in your workplace and industry. So check out Better yet, talk to Makeeba today. Let’s move forward together as a city whose highest priority is meeting the needs of its young people.

I want to close by reminding us what some of those needs look like.

Since the White House issued its executive orders on immigration, we’ve rallied to safeguard the rights and security of all our residents. I’ve talked about the astounding impact of immigrants on our economy, from two-thirds of our life scientists to $4.3 billion in consumer spending. Tech executives have already told me they are looking more closely at Canada for their next expansion.

But I’ve been thinking especially about the children and teens in our schools. Some have approached me personally to express their fear and anxiety. Remember: 30% of BPS students are still learning English as their second language. And 48% have a parent at home who is foreign born.

This is nothing new. I was one of those kids. So was Superintendent Dr. Tommy Chang; Chief of Economic Development John Barros; Director of Workforce Development Trinh Nguyen; Commissioner of Veterans’ Services Giselle Sterling; and others in my administration and in this room. We went home after school to bilingual immigrant households.

Our students today, better than anyone, reflect the extraordinary strength this immigrant experience adds to America. Last year at our annual BPS Valedictorians Luncheon, I sat next to Bilal Lafta of Boston Community Leadership Academy. In his speech, he recalled fleeing Iraq as a child and living for months in a refugee camp. And he reflected on the opportunities he got in the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Public Libraries. He said “It’s my family, my teachers, and my community that has given me this freedom … the privilege of living in a safe community that values our education.” And he urged all of us to “look for ways to give back to that community.” Now he’s studying biomedical engineering at Brown University.

There are many more stories like Bilal’s. And our students face many other challenges, from poverty and trauma to discrimination and disabilities. Some call these challenges the extra burdens of urban education. I call these students our most precious resource. They give us the privilege of living in a city that’s constantly renewed by resilient young people from all over the world and each one of our neighborhoods.

Their diversity truly is our people-driven strength. Their talent – if we can unlock it through mobility – is our future. They are why we are investing $1 Billion in our schools, and moving toward universal pre-K. And they are the reason I have no doubt that no matter what challenges come before us, Boston will continue to thrive and continue to lead the nation and the world forward.

Thank you. God Bless the City of Boston. God Bless the United States of America.