"That Girl" Disrupts the Status Quo

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On June 28, 1974, Sullivan explained her reason for changing her initial vote not to appeal Garrity's ruling.

"From the literal moment of my first election in 1973, I felt their desperation about their joblessness in the form of daily job requests from Boston's black and white neighborhoods."[1]

The Boston School Committee changed drastically over the years. Initially, 25 annually-elected members made up the committee. These men tended to be educated and wealthy stakeholders in the activities and policies of the local schools. By1905, the BSC became a five person committee elected every other year. By the 1970s, members very rarely visited schools. Consequently, they did not see the effect their votes had, and often used their position as a political stepping stone to get into politics and rise up economically. [2] 

Several factors shaped the committee that Sullivan entered in 1974. Most of the people of Boston experienced some sort of financial difficulty including people who tended to run for BSC. Candidates often promised jobs in exchange for votes. The desire to be reelected because of the short term in office often caused members of the BSC to oppose busing. Kathleen Sullivan’s decision to follow Judge Garrity’s court orders stood a stark contrast to how committee members often operated. 

No matter her stance, Kathleen Sullivan stood apart from the other BSC members. During the initial vote to appeal Judge Garrity’s decision which occcured on June 21, only Sullivan voted no. When the committee reconsidered the vote a few days later, she decided to join the others, making the vote unanimous. She modified her decisions after learning, at one of the desegregation hearings, that Garrity had studied the state’s plan for desegregation plan only two days before issuing his decision. Sullivan often asked multiple questions before voting on any issues during BSC meetings; the fact that Garrity only spent a couple of days studying the state plan did not sit well with her. 

At the end of October 1974, Garrity ordered that the committee submit a Phase II plan by December 16. The BSC prepared to submit a desegregation plan, but the stabbing of Michael Faith, a white student at South Boston High on December 11, revived anti-busing sentiment. Five days later, despite risking contempt of court, jail sentencing, and the loss of professional licensure, the committee voted 3-2 against approving the desegregation plan. Tierney and Sullivan voted for it, while McDonough, Kerrigan, and Ellison voted against it. Their lawyer attempted to save the committee from being in contempt by submitting a plan an hour late that same day.[3]

When the BSC voted to amend the December 16 plan in an attempt to achieve desegregation with voluntary busing, Garrity ruled that Kerrigan, McDonough, and Ellison complied with his order. He asked that the BSC plan be given to him by January 20, so he can take voluntary busing into consideration.[4] Multiple meetings to devise a desegregation plan followed.

During a meeting on January 13, the BSC members discussed the idea of leaving schools that were already integrated alone. Kathleen Sullivan brought up the idea of a lottery system, in which, when possible, students would get their first or second choice school. Afterward, the seats that were needed to integrate the schools would  be placed in a lottery. John Kerrigan motioned to relocate teachers instead of busing students. He also strongly advocated for busing students into the suburbs. The plan submitted to Judge Garrity on January 27 would include expanding METCO (a private organization that had instituted a successful voluntary busing program), additional seats in vocational schools, and creating a state school system instead of a city wide school system. Their plan focused on keeping schools as stable as possible and voluntary busing instead of “forced busing.”

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John Kerrigan motioned to strike Robert Dentler's testimony in court, citing that Dentler's membership in the NAACP presented a conflict of interest.

Unlike the Rest, Sullivan Attends Court Hearings

After the BSC failed to submit what Garrity considered an acceptable desegregation plan, he hired two consultants to help create the Masters Plan: Robert Dentler, Dean of Boston University’s School of Education and Associate Dean, Marvin B. Scott. Less than a month later, the Boston School Committee attempted to remove Dentler as one of Garrity’s experts and to strike all of Dentler’s testimony given during the Phase II hearings. Kerrigan argued that Dentler's membership in the NAACP posed a conflict of interest, and he should not serve as a desegregation expert while being a member.[5]

Four of the five committee members voted to remove Dentler’s testimony. Kathleen Sullivan voted to keep it. She argued that the court was already aware that Dentler belonged to the NAACP. She articulated, “Mr. Chairman, I cannot resist responding. Mr. Kerrigan, I do not recall seeing you at any of the hearings so that you cannot possibly know what has gone on since you feel the media doesn’t adequately cover them.” Unlike her peers, Kathleen Sullivan attended most, if not all, of the hearings for the planning for Phase II. Kerrigan, instead of attending the hearings himself, relied heavily on the media to know what was happening during them. Dentler continued to be one of Garrity’s experts until control was transferred back to the Boston School Committee in 1985, despite the BSC’s attempts to oust him as one of the desegregation experts.

Sullivan Fights Corruption in the Boston School Committee 

From September 1972 until August 1975, William J. Leary was the superintendent of Boston Public Schools. Elected with a 4-1 vote, Leary spent his time as superintendent expanding reading programs, moving departments around to create more jobs, and following the court’s orders enforcing the Racial Imbalance Law. Before Phase I began, Mayor Kevin White named Leary as the head of desegregation in Boston Public Schools during the implementation of busing. He became responsible for answering any questions regarding student safety and the final voice for any issues that may arise. Unfortunately, he lost the support of most of the BSC when he followed every detail of Garrity's federal court order. [6]

In April 1975, the BSC discussed the state of Boston’s schools. John Kerrigan motioned to hire one hundred new custodians for the coming year as three new schools were going to be opened. Looking towards the future, Sullivan argued that there was no reason to hire more help when nothing guaranteed that twenty-five schools in the city were going to remain open. During this same meeting, Ellison confronted Superintendent William J. Leary, asking if he had consulted with John Doherty, the Chef Plant Engineer, about school maintenance when he created the budget. Leary admitted that Doherty had written his budget without consulting him, so, in turn, Leary cut Doherty’s budget without consultation. Lack of communcation became one of the many reasons why, -only a few weeks later, the Boston School Committee voted to remove Leary as superintendent. 

During the election for the new school Superintendent in April the BSC vote was split between three members of the school department. Paul Ellison and John Kerrigan placed their votes for Marion Fahey. John McDonough and Kathleen Sullivan voted for Paul Kennedy. Paul Tierney voted to keep Superintendent Leary on, but when he realized that he did not have a majority, he switched his vote to Fahey as well, citing her success with reading programs

The Boston Globe claimed that Fahey's election had been cemented ten days earlier while all members of the BSC except Sullivan took part in the National Association of School Boards meeting in Miami. Reportedly, Kerrigan celebrated her victory later that day in his office with a bottle of Scotch whiskey. Not everyone supported the nomination for new superintendent. Patronage politics ran rampant in Boston at this time, and Sullivan fought against it while in the BSC. Local community groups, Sullivan's policy of anti-patronage, and McDonough's backing Kennedy through prevented her from winning a unanimous BSC nomination.[6]

In September, concerned parents of the Community District Council of District Nine attended the BSC meeting and spoke out against the new Superintendent's nominations for the school department. Kathleen Sullivan shared parents' concerns about unqualified nominations and some of Fahey's decisions, including removing John Coakley as District Nine's superintendent. Repeatedly Sullivan spoke out against Fahey's nominations for school department. 


[1] Kathleen Sullivan-Alioto, “Boxed in: The Boston School Committee in Crisis,” (Ed. D, Harvard University, 1980) 001093213, 81.

[2] Ibid., 56-66.

[3] Muriel Cohen, "School Board Rejects Plan for Phase 2, Risks Contempt," Boston Globe, December 16, 1974. 

[4] Muriel Cohen, “Garrity Clears Three of Contempt Charges,” Boston Globe, January 9, 1975

[5] Bryan Marquad, “Robert Dentler; Helped Draft School Desegregation Plan,” Boston Globe, March 23, 2008. James Worsham, “School Committee Votes to Ask Dentler Ouster,” Boston Globe, February 27, 1975.

[6] Muriel Cohen, "White says Leary Boss on School Desegregation," Boston Globe, August, 23, 1974, 1.

[7] Muriel Cohen, "Marion Fahey Appointed Boston Schools Head," Boston Globe, April 30, 1975, 1. 

"That Girl" Disrupts the Status Quo