Legal fight between Superintendent and Wellesley School Committee in 1930s was one for the ages

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on November 5, 2015.

Dr. S. Monroe Graves Source: 1935 Wellesleyan

Dr. S. Monroe Graves
Source: 1935 Wellesleyan

In case you’ve been living under a rock lately, these last 12 months in Wellesley have been quite crazy. Not just was there a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Town to purchase a 40-plus acre tract of land, but there’s also been the announcement of a possible elementary school closure — something that hasn’t happened since the 1980s — as well as a heated debate about whether Wellesley should adopt a Town Manager form of government. What a trifecta of issues facing our municipality!

But let’s keep some perspective here. Wellesley has had to deal with far crazier events in the past.

For instance, how about when the Town had two Superintendents of Schools employed at the same time? That’s right. In 1939, the Town of Wellesley had two completely separate individuals — S. Monroe Graves and Edwin H. Miner — both running the same school system. That would be like have two Presidents of the United States both occupying the Oval Office.

Perhaps what was more ridiculous was the situation that led up to this reality. Here’s the story in a nutshell. Basically, the School Committee and Superintendent Graves didn’t like each other one bit, so the three-member committee secretly hired a new superintendent and gave Dr. Graves notice of his dismissal. This action, however, led to a three-year-long legal fight by Graves, resulting in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reinstating him and putting Wellesley in the awkward situation of having two superintendents.

How Dr. Graves was originally dismissed is a story in and of itself. It began on July 9, 1935 when the Chairman of the School Committee, Isaac Sprague Jr. — son of the much more famous Isaac Sprague — invited the superintendent into his private office and informed him that the committee wished to change superintendents and requested his resignation.

This caught Dr. Graves totally off guard. First of all, the longest tenured School Committee member — Chairman Sprague — had only served for two years, so the committee itself was rather unfamiliar with Graves’s entire performance as superintendent over the past 21 years. But perhaps more importantly, no clear reasons were given for his termination.

Dr. Graves refused to resign, but he didn’t tell Sprague that. Instead, he just carried on with his job. This despite increased pressure from the School Committee. The superintendent was even savvy enough to successfully request that a discussion of this matter be striked from the minutes of an October 1935 School Committee meeting. One could only assume that he was trying to buy as much time as possible.

This secrecy ended soon after the School Committee meeting of February 18, 1936 when its members informed the superintendent that his successor had been chosen and that Graves’s tenure would be over on July 31st. Unbeknownst to the School Committee, someone — perhaps the superintendent himself — leaked their decision to the Boston newspapers. Wellesley’s political troubles now became regional news.

Throughout this messy public debate — a “he said, they said” dispute — Wellesley residents (as well as the schools’ teachers) overwhelmingly supported Dr. Graves. After all, he was a beloved figure, having led the public schools through turbulent times as the town grew rapidly over the previous two decades. Furthermore, few people understood why the School Committee would act so hastily to remove the superintendent given that he was only two years away from being able to retire with a full pension.

The crux of the debate was whether Dr. Graves was given a proper hearing to discuss the charges brought forth by the School Committee. Indeed, the public — and Superintendent Graves to an extent — didn’t even know what the charges were.

A closed-door hearing was finally held in a series of meetings in April. The School Committee members accused the superintendent of 13 separate charges of poor job performance, from failing to supervise his teachers and staff effectively to refusing to carry out the policies set forth by the School Committee.

Two specific events were brought up to substantiate these claims. The first was an unfortunate (but true) incident where a janitor beat a 9-year-old student’s head against a brick wall and then verbally assaulted him after being accused of doing so. The second was just as horrifying: a principal and pupil “engaging in fisticuffs” that was compounded by the fact that at the student’s disciplinary hearing, the School Committee learned that the youth had been rushed through the school system despite repeated academic failures.

More generally, however, the School Committee didn’t approve of Graves’s performance because they believed that the Wellesley Public Schools — with one of the highest per pupil spending in the Commonwealth — should be performing better than it was.

Much of this concern arose through a rigorous analysis of the school system in 1935 by a group of educational professionals from the University of Pittsburgh. The common theme throughout their report was poor facilities: decrepit schoolhouses and overcrowded classrooms were hindering the educational process and jeopardizing student safety. Specifically, three wooden elementary schools — Hunnewell, Fiske, and North — as well as both Phillips Junior High School and the Senior High School had to be replaced immediately.

In the superintendent’s defense, this really wasn’t his fault. It was the middle of the Great Depression and Wellesley’s taxpayers were more conservative than ever. Numerous attempts to replace the old school buildings had failed. And yet Graves still had overseen the construction and opening of five elementary schools between 1923 and 1932: Hardy, Kingsbury, Sprague, Brown, and Perrin. (At the time of this analysis, Warren was under construction. It would replace North in late 1935.)

Nevertheless, Dr. Graves found himself out of the job at the end of July in 1936. The School Committee had won. But the former superintendent would not accept defeat. One week later, he sought reinstatement by filing a petition for a writ of mandamus in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Graves claimed that he was removed without cause and that no public hearing was held on the matter. The School Committee fired back, filing a demurrer challenging his assertion of a wrongful termination (even if there had been no public hearing).

The battle was on. It wouldn’t end until March 1939. So what was the final decision by the Supreme Court? Indeed, Graves was fired without a proper legal hearing, that evidence had not been presented publicly, and that none of the charges by the School Committee had been substantiated. The Town of Wellesley would have to reinstate Dr. Graves as Superintendent of Schools. It now had both Dr. Graves and Edwin Miner occupying the same position.

One month later, a settlement was reached. Dr. Graves would receive all of his back pay, plus interest, and part of his legal fees — a sum totaling $18,008 – and then retire with a full pension.

Besides this financial cost — as well as much embarrassment to the town — there was an additional consequence. In March 1936, at the same time the story broke in the papers that the School Committee had given Graves notice of his dismissal, Town Meeting finally approved a previously rejected proposal to increase the number of School Committee members from 3 to 5.

The voters’ reasoning was quite simple: a consolidation of power was a liability to the Town. Too much control within the hands of only a few individuals could result in disastrous outcomes. Checks and balances were needed. By increasing the number of School Committee members, the likelihood that extreme actions — such as voting to fire a Town employee without proper cause — would decrease.

Sure, there have been a few battles between the School Committee and superintendent in the years since. But they were nothing in comparison to that of the late 1930s. That battle was epic, and it makes the issues the Town is currently facing look quite dull.