As the Metco desegregation program celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, a sensitive dispute between its board and its longtime executive director has unfolded behind the scenes.
The dispute has centered around whether Jean McGuire — long the public face of the groundbreaking program — should step down after 43 years of leading Metco.
The issue culminated in September, when the group’s board, after many months of negotiating with McGuire, said it had reached a retirement agreement with her. Board members then announced her departure.
But McGuire, in an interview last week, insisted she was forced out.
“I did not resign,” said McGuire, 85. “They fired me.”
She said she still feels insulted by the circumstances of her exit. McGuire said she had hoped to stay for two more years, but the organization opted instead to pay her for that time and continue on without her. She said many of her family members have worked into their 90s, and she feels she has more to offer and still has lots of energy, noting she swims daily.
Charles Walker, president of the Metco board, said leadership change was necessary to move the organization in a new direction and to address some pressing issues, such as fund-raising and finding a new location for its Roxbury offices.
The board has not named a replacement for the organization, which coordinates the placement of non-white students in suburban schools. Currently, about 3,000 Metco students attend schools in 35 metropolitan Boston districts.
McGuire said that among the tasks she wanted to complete was finding more opportunities for students, more schools to participate, and more money to get them there. With affordable housing scarce around Boston, many communities are still not racially or economically integrated, she said.
“If housing is integrated, you don’t need to run buses between Boston and Marblehead, and Scituate, and Cohasset, and Brookline, and Wellesley,” she said. “That’s what I get upset about: that we have failed the citizens here about freedom and access to the Boston metropolitan area.”
McGuire’s departure from the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity Inc. marks the passing of an era for the state’s decades-long efforts to integrate public schools.
McGuire began as executive director of Metco in 1973, one year before court-ordered busing ripped Boston apart. Over the course of the next four decades, she oversaw the voluntary placement of tens of thousands of students of color from Boston, who were desperate to get out of the Boston school system for an education in the suburbs.
To generations of education advocates, McGuire is a trailblazer.
In 1981, she became the first black woman elected to the Boston School Committee, where she quickly earned a reputation during her nearly 10-year tenure as a tireless champion for education, even as she waved off criticism at times that she lacked political tact.
She became a role model in other ways. For a time, she was a single mother, scraping money together to feed her two young children and eventually earning an education degree from Boston State College, enabling her to become a teacher and a school counselor who worked with troubled youths.
“She stood up for what was right regardless of the ramifications,” said Barbara Fields of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts. “She eats, sleeps, dreams and works by what is best for children. ... She really is an icon and a legend and paved the way for those of us who came after her.”
All of which makes McGuire’s departure from Metco a sensitive topic. The organization says it has attempted to honor her legacy, most recently paying tribute to her at a fund-raiser this month. Some suburban schools with Metco programs have also celebrated her accomplishments.
The board decided earlier this year to eliminate the executive director’s job and replace it with a chief executive who has fund-raising expertise. That, in turn, prompted the board to enter into retirement talks with McGuire in February, which lasted until September.
Walker said the board’s primary goal was to make sure McGuire left with her integrity intact.
“Jean was like a second mother to a lot of people,” Walker said. “Everyone speaks affectionately of her and it was hard for her to leave.
“What do you say about a champion, an icon, and a dedicated and courageous leader who was there almost from inception?” he added. “She’s a real hero.”
But by many accounts, she also is a fighter.
The retirement talks this year marked the second time in two years that the board raised the specter of leaving with McGuire.
The previous attempt — initiated by the board when it was composed of many different members — quickly grew combative, according to the organization’s most recent audit, filed with the state attorney general’s office earlier this year.
On April 6, 2015, the board entered into an executive session and presented McGuire a retirement and separation contract with the hope she would sign it within three weeks.
But three days before the deadline, according to the audit, McGuire countered with her own settlement offer that characterized the retirement package as part of a pattern of age discrimination. That turn of events prompted the board to notify its insurance company about the potential for a lawsuit.
McGuire said this week that she’s moving on. Other organizations have contacted her about jobs, she said, and she added that she’d run again for the school board if the panel, now appointed by the mayor, was ever opened up for voters again.
She’s working on disentangling her life — and her identity — from her storied role at Metco. She’s been saving news clippings about the program for years, she said, and still has some waiting to be filed.
“Most people don’t know I’m gone,” she said. “They stop me in the store, tell me about their graduates. Can I get their kids into high school?”
Mel King, the activist and former state lawmaker, credits McGuire with helping to build an educational program that provided quality schools to students who otherwise would not have had the chance to attend one.
“There are thousands of young people who can attest to the value of the experience they had,” King said. “She really has a belief in the capacity of the children to have the best education possible.”