Kathy Kelley v. Kevin White

Kelley and White Fight Each Other and the Courts and Each Other in the Courts…

by Elizabeth Mann and Eleanor Katari

Boston Union Teacher, November 1979 (front page). Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, UMass Boston.

From 1980 to 1982, tensions between BTU leadership and the Boston City Mayor Kevin White heated to volcanic proportions. The Summer of 1980 was a tenuous time for Boston teachers, parents and students. Following Judge Garrity’s decision in 1974 to end segregation of Boston’s Public Schools and in the wake of Phase II which mandated Affirmative Action hiring to reach a suitable percentage of teachers of color to serve the already large population of students of color, the Boston Teachers Union leadership dug in their heels to fight Affirmative Action at every turn. As the BTU butted heads with the Boston School Department and Boston School Committee, claiming incompetence and mismanagement of budget, Boston Mayor Kevin White too was fighting the BTU in the courts, appealing and appealing approved contracts and refusing to implement the increased budget for the BTU.

From an article in the BUT 1979 placing blame on the Boston School Department and the Court.

BTU President Kathleen Kelley, the first woman elected to the position, was not just fighting a war on two fronts, she was taking on everyone, from Judge Garrity’s decisions which put pressures on the schools and teachers to change, to the Boston School Department’s implementation of the overhaul, and of course, Mayor Kevin White who would not approve an increased budget necessary to implement Garrity’s changes as well as new special education requirements. Kelley was determined to take on everyone. Kevin White simply had to bide his time.

Mayor Kevin White was by no means fighting the BTU for the sake of desegregation or, as Garrity, for the rights of non-white community members. White saw an opportunity to throw the Boston Public Schools into chaos and reap the benefits of school closures. He, like Kelley, also criticized the Boston School Department and put undue pressures on the School Committee. By not approving the budget, tensions increased for everyone in the months leading up to the 1980 school year until everyone was at a fever pitch.

BTU members demonstrate in 1980

Kathleen Kelley was not incorrect when she pointed out the badly needed and dually approved budget increase. Teachers were working under an obsolete budget. Schools did face pressures to change policies in order to better serve students and faculty under Garrity’s rulings. Paraprofessionals were needed and programs needed a budget to run. Kelley fought for raises for tenured teachers and stuck with union policy of fighting for protections of seniority, mainly, first person in, first person out when it came to impending layoffs. As White dragged his feet with the budget approval and implementation, the school year was looming ever closer, and the union would have to decided whether or not to strike. A strike or a vote to strike could make or break the unified power of the union, as well as Kelley’s efficacy as a leader. (see Black Choices, Black Voices: Navigating the Layoffs of 1981 for more information)

To Strike or Not To Strike, That is the Question

Voices of the Boston Union Teacher, often Kelley’s own, called for teachers to be ready for action, for demonstration, for letter writing, hearings in court, and whatever it would take to get the budget approved. Time was running out and the fight with Mayor White was constant.

There Will Be Blood

“blood has to flow”

Boston Mayor Kevin White had a very handy card up his sleeve in the fight to eviscerate the Boston School Department and the budget he was loath to approve. Proposition 2½ was approved in 1980 and would be implemented in 1982. This meant that the funds from property taxes used to fund schools, police and firefighters among others would be suddenly gone.

In 1980 a conservative Massachusetts group called Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT) effectively tapped public resentment of property tax burdens and, with support from an incipient Massachusetts high-tech industry, waged an effective campaign for the passage of Proposition 2 ½.

Proposition 2½ was a voter tax initiative that limited property taxes to 2.5% of the value of the property, and also constrained annual increases on property taxes. The Boston Teachers Union, and The Boston Union Teacher, saw the danger coming and spoke out. In a pointed opinion piece in the July 1980 issue, Richard Stutman warned:

“Proposition 2½, like Proposition 13, is a little more than a tax abatement scheme for business and large landowners.”

The Big Business and Landlords bulldozing schools, waste management, police and fire departments were of course in league with the Mayor who had supported the measure to remain in their pockets.


Despite Stutman’s warnings, the measure passed on November 4, 1980, with a statewide margin of 56% in favor to 40% against.

The effects were immediate and devastating. According to state records, Massachusetts communities lost nearly $500 million in local revenue in the first year after the passage of  Proposition 2 ½. By and large, public schools bore the brunt of these budget cuts, with smaller effects spreading across public works, infrastructure, libraries, parks & recreation and police and fire department budgets.
(Morgan, 1982)http://www.jstor.org/stable/20386659

According to state records, Massachusetts communities lost nearly $500 million in local revenue in the first year after the passage of Prop 2 ½

Ed Doherty, Vice President at the time and later Kathleen Kelley’s successor as President of the BTU, looked back at the eighties during an interview forty years later. He recalled,

“Two things happened in 1981. One was  Proposition 2 ½  which limited the city’s ability to raise property taxes and cost the city that year 80 million dollars. I think most people remember Proposition 2 ½ and what a terrible impact it had on financing public schools in Boston. But another thing happened in 1981 and that was a state Supreme Court decision that the City of Boston had overcharged a number of businesses. And the state Supreme Court ordered the city of Boston to reimburse those businesses for what they should not have been charging them in previous years. That cost 90 million dollars” 

(Doherty 2020)https://openarchives.umb.edu/digital/collection/p15774coll27/id/35/rec/3(Insert Audio Clip here)

Boston was not alone in facing the impact of  Proposition 2 ½. In the summer of 1981 alone, 154 school buildings were closed across the state due to Proposition 2 ½ budget cuts. Statewide, in the wake of the measure’s passage, “termination notices were sent to more than 15,000 school personnel, or 16% of the educational workforce statewide. 12% of all teachers received notices, as did 19% of all administrators and 40% of all paraprofessional aides.” 

(Morgan, 1982)https://www.jstor.org/stable/20386659

In the wake of Proposition 2 1/2, termination notices were sent to more than 15,000 school personnel, or 16% of the educational workforce across the state of Massachusetts

New state aid passed by the Massachusetts legislature in the summer of 1981 eventually brought the number of layoffs down to 12,000 school personnel statewide, or 12.6% of the educational workforce. But the impact was still enormous, and public schools carried the highest burden of the reduced revenues, particularly urban school systems with high enrollment and more renters/apartment-dwellers, and thus lower property tax revenues.

Proposition 2 1/2 + School Closures + White Flight = Real Estate Gains

“Average Elementary School Capacity” Boston Union Teacher, December 1979. Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, UMass Boston.

Fiscal and Racial problems, as illustrated by this problematic cartoon, exacerbated by both White and Kelley, did nothing to stop or ease the inevitable school closings. White flight in response to bussing and desegregation led to school closures just as much as sliced revenues. Students who remained in the public school system were pushed into larger schools of increasing class size. Teachers were left in charge of classroom sizes of over 40 students, and paraprofessionals were some of the first on the chopping block.

As the BTU struggled to fight for teachers contracts, deliberating on when and where to strike, and continued to fight their own battles in court concerning Affirmative Action, the Mayor seemed victorious. In order to deal with the devastation of Proposition 2½ schools were forced to close. White’s grievances with the budget of the school department appeared to gain traction in light of the lost revenue. Despite letting down the city of Boston, he remained deep in the pockets of real estate developers who looked upon closed schools as vultures gazing on carrion.

White’s Day In the Sun Clouded by Corruption Investigation

Massachusetts US District Attorney William F Weld issued “charges of fraudulent disability pensions, bribery, extortion, and perjury that were the downfall of more than 20 city employees, including a number of key individuals in White’s political machine, and nearly as many businessmen.”

Brighter Days Ahead With Dukakis

1983 saw massive changes across the board. Mayor Kevin White, who had eyes on running for Massachusetts Governor stepped down from those lofty goals after twenty of his city hall employees and nearly twenty businessmen in cahoots with them were convicted on corruption. White stayed out of jail, but his political career was finished. He decided not to run for reelection in 1983. Kathleen Kelley also stepped down in 1983, announcing her retirement.

Governor Dukakis engaged with the unions to correct the mistakes that had been made under Edward King’s administration which had supported cutting taxes. The tax cuts of Proposition 2 ½ and state-wide chaos it created could not be ignored. Dukakis was the come back kid of the 1982 gubernatorial election, in no small part by making peace with the unions. His tenure as governor saw revitalization and what became known as the “Massachusetts Miracle.”