From "That Girl" to President

President Sullivan

In 1977, Kathleen Sullivan became president of the Boston School Committee. In addition to this, she began her second year at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Before her graduation in 1980, she wrote a three-volume thesis on the BSC, established a management program for Boston's public schools, and created a new budget system. 


On January 31, 1977, new Chairman Sullivan laid out her goals for the 1977 school year. This is the last time the minutes call the head of the BSC as Chairman. Sullivan motions to change the name to President to be more gender inclusive. 

Sullivan's Election

For much of January 1977, the Boston School Committee functioned without a Chairperson as the vote split between Kathleen Sullivan and David Finnegan. McDonough backed Sullivan, while Tierney backed Finnegan. After two weeks of deadlock Elvira "Pixie" Palladino contacted the others and announced her vote would go to Sullivan. The BSC unanimously went to Sullivan on January 26, and Palladino took the position of Treasurer.[1] On this day, the Boston school system became the only major metropolitan school system in the US led by two women. 

Less than a month later, Finnegan walked out in the middle of a meeting. He argued that the majority of the committee was violating a court order that stated that new appointments needed to be made on a "one-black, one-white basis." He also claimed that the only reason Palladino decided to vote for Sullivan was because Sullivan had secretly pledged that no African Americans would be appointed to positions in East Boston.[2] Palladino stated that, although she and Sullivan often opposed each other on issues, she voted for Sullivan because of her experience and because she was a woman. The rumor that Sullivan made a covert deal to gain the upper hand went completely against her reputation. In fact, the BSC approved African American principles for East Boston shortly after this accusation, so Finnegan's claims were unfounded.

President Sullivan vs. Judge Garrity

Established in July 1974, the Implementation Team began carrying out Garrity's orders to desegregate Boston's public schools. In August, the team became the Office of Implementation, which existed until September 1977. In December 1975, the federal court ruled that the Office of Implementation needed to be separate from the BSC, so control was moved from the committee to the superintendent. Fahey, given the money and authority to hire full time employees, became responsible for carrying out the court's orders for desegregation of schools. Here, Sullivan and McDonough grew even more opposed to Fahey's position as superintendent. They argued that the staff Fahey hired were known followers and fundraisers for Kerrigan, and Kerrigan wanted them in these positions.[3]

Despite their past, Fahey and Sullivan came together in 1977 for a common goal, removing federal control from Boston's public schools. Phase III included an autonomous from the school system, Department of Implementation Both Sullivan and Fahey argued that the court needed to step back and allow for Boston to take back control of its schools, so the BSC and the Superintendent came together for a common cause.


In addition to the Department of Implementation and Phase III, Sullivan concerned herself with high school seniors and their education. Here she attempts to figure out how many seniors failed to submit forms on time to ensure they went to the same school the next year. 

Phase III included the busing of kindergarten students, as Garrity ruled that "kindergarten classes should be desegregated "where possible" and that action may include interdistrict assignments." As a result, Associate School Superintendent, Charles Leftwich, postponed registration for kindergarten students to prepare for the next phase of busing.[4] Lead by Sullivan, the BSC went to work. They created a plan with less busing and more all-day programs in order to entice voluntary desegregation. The plan passed through the committee with a 3-2 vote, McDonough and Palladino dissenting. Some eight hundred kindergarteners ended up being bused that September.

Kathleen Sullivan's presidency also involved substantial reforms. These included holding students accountable for performance and encouraging teachers to hold back failing students instead of passing them to subsequent grades and creating a new contract to address the needs of striking teachers. She also fought patronage and argued that promotion should be based on merit. Under her direction, the BSC removed James Doherty as headmaster when Sullivan found him unqualified for the job. Subsequently, Judge Garrity threatened to sue the committee if they did not place Doherty in the next available high school job. He stated that the BSC broke the law as Doherty had tenure. While Sullivan, was forced to comply to Garrity's decision, she argued that laws like these cheated students.[5] Kathleen Sullivan’s presidency allowed her to achieve many educational reforms, while also working to bring back control of the schools back to the city. 


[1] Muriel Cohen, "Sullivan as Chairwoman Boston School Board picks," Boston Globe, January, 26, 1977, 5.

[2] Muriel Cohen, "Sullivan Denies Deal with Palladino," Boston Globe, February 19, 1977, 4.

[3] John Kifner, "Boston Politics and Patronage Playing Big Role in Complex Maneuvering in the School Desegregation Fight," New York Times, December 23, 1975, 26.

[4] Marguerite Giudice, "Boston Schools Postpone Kindergarten Registration," Boston Globe, May 27, 1977, 3.

[5] Joseph Harvey, "Court Threatens School Committee with Jail," Boston Globe, July 7, 1977, 30.

From "That Girl" to President