Darnell Goldson graduated first in his class from Hillhouse High School in 1979. Almost 30 years later, the thought of his alma mater still makes the lifelong New Haven resident emotional.

But his emotions are hardly those of nostalgia.

Goldson is “deeply concerned” about the state of Hillhouse High School and the rest of the public schools in the Elm City, which are producing what he calls “embarrassingly high” dropout rates. His concern about public schools is just one of the reasons that last week Goldson, a registered Democrat, announced his intentions to seek the New Haven mayoralty in 2009.

Having announced his candidacy so early in the race, Goldson thinks he will have enough time to gain recognition amongst voters who are much more familiar with current mayor John DeStefano Jr., now in his eighth term. Although he has yet to outline a formal platform, Goldson said he will run a “commonsense campaign” that emphasizes education, tax policy, public safety and immigration.

But DeStefano, who will face reelection next November, dismissed Goldson, who he said “borders on the irrational” in his criticism of the recently enacted Elm City Resident Card program.

Goldson, who has spent the majority of his professional life in public service, is perhaps best known for his tenure as the executive director of New Haven’s Community Action Agency, which provides services to residents. In 2005, he was fired after the CAA accused his wife of using the organization’s credit card to shop at Victoria’s Secret.

“It was a mistake my wife will never make again,” he said.

The controversy resulted in a lawsuit that ended in an out-of-court settlement in 2007. The CAA declined to comment, but Goldson said the credit-card charges were repaid. Goldson said he cannot disclose where he currently works.

Since his announcement, Goldson has criticized DeStefano, for whom he used to work as a legislative assistant, claiming that the mayor has become too cozy in City Hall.

“I think DeStefano did a great job early in his administration to make positive changes in the city,” Goldson said. “But I think John’s been there too long. He’s drunk on spending tax payers’ dollars on all of these experiments.”

Among his top priorities in office, Goldson said, would be addressing the achievement gap in New Haven schools, readjusting the requirements of current tax programs and improving the safety of New Haven citizens.

Goldson’s opposition to the government protection of illegal immigrants has already drawn the attention of a local advocacy group. On the heels of his announcement last week, Goldson received his first endorsement from the controversial Community Watchdog Project. The group has ardently opposed DeStefano for his policies on illegal immigrants, particularly the ID Card, which gives city residents, regardless of immigration status, an ID card.

Dustin Gold, chief strategist for the CWP, is a strong backer of Goldson’s candidacy.

“The city government should be concentrating on taking care of the citizens that live in New Haven and not trying to create a magnet for illegal immigrants to come to the city,” Gold said, adding that illegal immigrants create competition for jobs among Americans and legal immigrants.

But Gold acknowledged that there are some discrepancies in his and Goldson’s rationales for their views on immigration, saying that Goldson is more concerned about the implications of DeStefano’s municipal policy than he is about the symbolic presence of illegal immigrants.

Goldson described his stance on immigration as one that is based on “law and order.”

“I believe the law should be used equally against all folks committing illegal activities,” he said. “You can’t pick out one body of people to not enforce the law with and enforce it with everyone else.”

But DeStefano dismissed Goldson, calling him an alarmist.

“[Goldson] borders on the irrational,” DeStefano said. “Point of fact: The ID card is available for all city residents. [His assertions are] part of the fear mongering that tears communities down rather than builds them up. It is unfortunate and non-productive.”

So far, Goldson’s announcement has produced a relatively subdued reaction. When reached for comment, some community leaders — such as Junta Executive Director Sandra Trevino — were unaware of Goldson’s intention to run.

As of now, Goldson said he is unsure whether he will enter the Democratic primary, where defeating DeStefano would be extremely difficult, or run as an independent in November.

“We’re pretty far out, and we’ll be defining ourselves as we go along,” Goldson said. “But we’re serious this is going to happen. Win, lose or draw — I will be on the ballot.”