By Doug Page
His critics likely gave him the one thing they never intended — a platform to defend his actions and sell his position.
But if readers look closely at what Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE) Chairman Paul Sagan told his fellow members regarding the issue of adding new charter schools, they’ll note he didn’t so much sell his position on the topic – he’s for them – as he defended his actions, repeating much of what he said a year ago.
At a September 2016 BOE meeting, Sagan talked about charter schools after it was reported he donated $100,000 to a group promoting a “Yes” vote on Question 2, a 2016 ballot referendum that would have increased charter schools in the Bay State had it succeeded. Last month, the topic rose again after it was reported by local media that Sagan donated $496,000 to another group advocating for Question 2. The recipient, Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, was recently hit with a $426,466 fine — the largest in the state’s campaign history — after the Commonwealth’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance discovered it failed to publicly disclose the identities of its donors.
At last month’s BOE meeting, Sagan restated he was a “dedicated supporter of all the Commonwealth’s public schools.” He also repeated that he’s “focused on our work to maintain Massachusetts’s position as a national leader in public education” and “[BOE] members and other public employees retain their rights as private citizens” and may donate their own money to causes and advocacy groups they believe in, so long as they follow the state’s ethics laws.
This was the second time in 12 months Sagan addressed the BOE about his donations to organizations supporting Question 2. In both cases, BOE members were unaware of his donations until local media reported it, just ahead of the September meetings. Prior to Sagan’s second address, Jay Gonzalez, a member of former Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration and a candidate for the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2018, called for Sagan to resign.
Sagan’s two donations have raised questions about his ability to remain impartial about the topic of charter schools, given the BOE oversees all of the state’s public — and charter — schools. All Massachusetts charter schools come before the BOE for a charter. The board has the ability to renew, revoke, relicense, or even shut them down.
“BOE Chairman Paul Sagan has always made clear his desire to expand the number of charter schools in Massachusetts,” Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) President Barbara Madeloni wrote in an email to baystateparent. “What we did not know until the [Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy] campaign finance violation was the extent to which Sagan is willing to be deceptive and disingenuous when it comes to moving his agenda. Sagan’s claim that he wanted to keep his donations to the pro-charter school campaign undisclosed, so as not to influence the political debate, is impossible to accept. What he in reality tried to do is avoid criticism for being so overtly political and placing his political motives above the interests of Massachusetts’s public school students.
“The MTA maintains its position that Governor Baker must dismiss Sagan on the grounds that he failed in his duty to the public by not being transparent about these donations,” Madeloni added.
The MTA is the union representing the majority of the Bay State’s public school teachers.
State officials, wishing to remain anonymous, say Sagan avoided any conflict of interest because neither he nor members of his immediate family would benefit from his donation. In addition, Question 2 was subject to approval by Massachusetts voters and couldn’t be put into effect by Sagan alone. Massachusetts voters rejected Question 2 last November, defeating it by a margin of nearly 800,000 votes.
In August 2016, Sagan donated $100,000 to the Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Public Schools, and one month later donated $496,000 to Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, both of which campaigned for the passage of Question 2.