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Development, Education Issues Top Low-Key Mayoral Debate

Mayor Tom Menino and City Councilor Michael Flaherty debated at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Lirary in Dorchester on Monday. (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)

Mayor Tom Menino and City Councilor Michael Flaherty debated at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Lirary in Dorchester on Monday. (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)

With two weeks to go to the election, City Councilor Michael Flaherty had one last chance to change the dynamics of the mayoral election before a large audience Monday night. Flaherty trailed incumbent Thomas Menino by 20 points in the latest poll.

The debate brought out some differences between the candidates, on how they would cut the city’s spiraling costs to cover retired city workers, for example. Flaherty said he would talk to retirees about putting them on Medicare. Menino questioned whether that would be fair to people who have already retired.

At one point, there was some question about who had the right figures. WBUR’s Bob Oakes reminded the mayor that in his first inaugural address, Menino promised to make the schools great again.

“The high-school dropout rate in 1994 was 7.5 percent when you came in. Last year, it was 7.6 percent, up slightly from when you came in,” Oakes said. “Have you failed in making the schools great again? Or have you failed in convincing Boston residents that they are?”

“Two accounts there. Our numbers show that the dropout rate has decreased by 33 percent,” Menino replied.

“Those are state numbers that I’m citing there,” said Oakes.

Flaherty speaks to the media after Monday night's debate. (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)

Flaherty speaks to the media after Monday night's debate. (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)

“What do you expect? They’re state numbers,” Menino said.

Flaherty turned the debate to how much schools are spending.

“We’re also operating under the most expensive school district in the country, where we’re spending close to $20,000 per student,” Flaherty said.

The latest state figures show that two years ago, Boston was tied for fifth most expensive school district in the state. Boston spent $17,000 per pupil, as much as Waltham and Weston. Rowe and Wellfleet spent $18,000, Nantucket was at $20,000, and Cambridge spent $25,000.

Menino brought the debate back to the dropout rate, and that led to the strangest moment of the night: A long pause by the mayor after someone in the audience either coughed or scoffed at what he was saying.

Development was another big issue last night. Flaherty tried to present Menino as a mayor who favors those with political connections.

“What we’re going to do is we’re going to end the pay-to-play system that governs the way that people get permits in the city of Boston,” Flaherty said. “People who are friendly with this administration are given a certain set of rules that they have to abide by. And someone walking in off the street that isn’t connected, that doesn’t hire the right lawyer or consultant, they have to follow another set of rules.”

Mayor Menino talks to the media after the debate with Flaherty on Monday. (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)

Mayor Menino talks to the media after the debate with Flaherty on Monday. (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)

It was on another question about development that the mayor admitted that he is stumped by one problem. He was asked what is going to happen in Downtown Crossing, where there’s a big hole where Filene’s used to be.

“It’s difficult to tell you where I’m at right now. We’ve met with some funders from Asia who were originally interested in it. We’re still trying to work with them, but the economy right now is down. We can’t get investors. One of the companies that was an investor in that property is near bankruptcy,” Menino said.

“We’re staying focused on that. The redevelopment authority and myself continue talking to other folks who might be interested in coming to One Franklin Street as we move forward.”

This debate was not as lively as earlier ones. Menino mostly smiled. None of Flaherty’s attacks unnerved him. This is the most contested mayoral race since Menino won the office.

Flaherty has tried to change the dynamics of the race before, by picking his former rival, Sam Yoon, as his running mate, for instance. But Monday night was Flaherty’s last chance to reshape the race in front of a large audience. It’s now behind him, and election day is rushing near.

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