Nor was it the first strike against Johnson, whose administrative shortcomings, widely recognized within the system, have received little coverage: she had previously left in place a principal who failed to report allegations of sexual assault by teacher LaShawn Hill, who was later arrested.

Contacted on vacation by reporters about the Peterson story, Connolly, in a breach of decorum seldom seen in Boston, decided to say what he believed. He told the Globe, on the record, that Johnson should be fired.

That was a bridge too far for Menino's people, who were circling the wagons around the superintendent. Connolly says that the administration deliberately portrayed him as a racist for opposing the African-American Johnson. Several others, not wishing to speak about it for attribution, also allege that Menino associates branded Connolly — and some other Johnson critics — as enemies of the black community.

"When you're a champion for school reform and get called Louise Day Hicks," Connolly says, "it really makes you question whether you're doing your job the right way."



The lesson Connolly took, it appears, was that it's better to be vilified for saying what you think is right than feel bad for doing what you think is wrong.

Soon after, Connolly refused to quietly accept the contract reached between the mayor and the Boston Teachers Union. He penned a critical op-ed for the Globe, and hauled parents and teachers into City Hall to testify against the contract.

Connolly also became convinced that the school-assignment reform process, which he had previously supported, had "gone off the rails." His decision to launch a competing plan — and ultimately deliver 7000 signatures of support to the mayor's External Advisory Committee — predictably put him further on the outs with Menino's people. But he believes, and many others agree, that it pushed the committee to improve its own plans — perhaps not a win for his political future, but definitely a win for the city's children.

Not everyone is buying the new Connolly. Several minority and good-government activists point to last year's long battle in the council over city redistricting as an example in which he not only failed to lead but, according to many, was the crucial waffler who held up the process.

Whether or not he's sincere, Connolly is now willing to criticize Menino and other powers-that-be, as he demonstrated when we talked.

"It's liberating," Connolly says of his new approach. "I won't live and die over losing an election. . . . I don't want to be a city councilor forever. I don't want to be in elected office forever."

Of Menino, he says: "There's a lot of tunnel vision in that administration — he's surrounded by people who make decisions based on making him look good, and not whether it's the right thing to do."

Bostonians, he says, have a "comfortable relationship with the status quo." He worries that resources go untapped because "we get so comfortable that we don't see the real problems, or that we try to solve them without changing the status quo."

He even dares to question a fundamental goal of many New Bostonians whose votes he covets — that "hopefully, we've elected our last white Irish or Italian mayor," as Spencer puts it.

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