After his toughest Democratic primary battle — the costliest in the city’s history — New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said last week that education, downtown development, and crime reduction will top his list of priorities as he begins his fifth term as the city’s chief executive.

DeStefano, 46, a man who considers the job of mayor “a mixture of recognizing needs and making use of opportunities,” said his plans for the next two years will be rooted in the successes of his earlier terms — reducing crime, gaining control of the city’s public housing system, and improving educational performance.

“These last two years have been a period of rising expectations,” DeStefano said. “Each term is different … but it’s always about perceiving what obvious needs exist and then seizing the opportunities to fulfill them.”

From 1990 to 2000, the city’s crime rate fell by almost 50 percent. The mayor, who first took office in 1994, attributes the trend to the community policing program he has championed.

But DeStefano maintains his greatest achievements have come in the area of education, which also proved to be one of the major flash points in this fall’s bitter mayoral election.

DeStefano squared off in a hard-fought Democratic primary against state Sen. Martin Looney. It was a contest veteran political observers say widened an already growing divide within the party.

The rift became even more evident when the leader of the city’s Democratic Party, Town Committee Chairman Nick Balletto, broke ranks and endorsed Looney even though the majority of the party’s committee members had agreed to support DeStefano.

Balletto has said he will not run for reelection to the post in the spring, and DeStefano has thrown his weight behind veteran organizer Susan Voigt — the woman he claims has the “skill set” to bring the troubled political organization back together.

“I think the election was competitive, even if it wasn’t particularly divisive,” DeStefano said, but added that Voigt has the talent to heal whatever divisions did emerge.

The town committee elections will not take place until mid-March, and DeStefano said he will put most of his energy over the next two years into education and downtown redevelopment.

Education Goals

Following through on one of his top campaign pledges, DeStefano said he will continue to work toward his goal of providing pre-kindergarten to all students entering the city’s public education system.

Currently, about 75 percent of eligible students attend some form of preschool in the city, which counts about 20,000 students in its public schools.

DeStefano has long said that New Haven’s below average student test scores reflect a lack of preparation in the earliest years of education. During the Democratic primary this fall, DeStefano maintained that New Haven students do not perform up to potential because they enter the school system at a disadvantage.

“When we get kids who are behind when they enter the school system, we can get them to come in earlier,” he said Friday. “It’s harder to change the pathology of families.”

Working with the city’s Board of Education and Yale child psychiatrist James Comer, DeStefano said he also plans to implement the revolutionary parent accountability plan he announced in September.

The plan, which emphasizes parental involvement over student test scores, has garnered praise from state and national educational experts as the first of its kind.

The mayor said he would also move forward with the city’s massive billion-dollar school construction and renovation program, which officials hope to complete by 2010.

DeStefano highlighted the effort during his Jan. 1 inauguration ceremony, which was held at the new Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School. The school, which will house 500 students in grades 5-8, is set to open in February.

The city’s early literacy program will continue to expand over the next two years to complement his other initiatives, DeStefano said.

Plans for Downtown

With the recent announcement of a tentative deal for the renovation of the ailing Chapel Square Mall and talk of plans for construction on the long-abandoned Macy’s and Malley’s parcels, DeStefano said he expects to see significant improvements downtown over the next two years.

The mayor said he would also continue with plans to connect the Wooster Square and Chapel Street districts through projects like the renovation of the four-story Strouse, Adler building, which stands between Court and Chapel streets.

DeStefano said he hopes to obtain state funding for new projects in the Ninth Square district, which the city has been trying to promote as a residential and high-end retail district, with varying degrees of success.

Despite his focus on improvements downtown, DeStefano made it clear that the city’s neighborhoods will still be high on his list of priorities. With $7 million in funding from the state, the city will continue to subsidize new homeowners who buy houses in New Haven — a policy DeStefano hopes will lead to continued growth in homeownership rates.

But the Sept. 11 attacks’ effect on local and state economies remains unclear, something DeStefano and other municipal leaders may have to address as they seek state-level funding.

For his part, DeStefano remains optimistic about New Haven’s current financial situation.

“If this is the worst it’s going to get, then we’ll take it,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve also got a lot farther to go than some places.”