The superintendent of the Everett Public Schools has accused the city’s mayor, Carlo DeMaria, of subjecting her to “blatant and overt acts of discrimination and retaliation” because she is an Indian-American woman who has hired administrative leaders who are not white.
Priya Tahiliani, who was appointed to lead the school system in December 2019, filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, claiming racial and gender discrimination. She alleged in her complaint that despite her consistently strong performance reviews, DeMaria and the School Committee have intentionally undermined her and interfered with her ability to manage day-to-day operations of the schools.
“The institutional racism championed by Everett’s Mayor, Carlo DeMaria, and his cronies on the now reformed School Committee is palpable,” Tahiliani wrote in the complaint.
Tahiliani is the first person of color to lead the Everett schools. Her complaint accuses DeMaria of campaigning last year on an agenda to “get me out” while broadcasting his intentions to appoint two white men to replace her and her deputy superintendent, an Asian-American woman.
Deanna Deveney, the city’s director of communications, said DeMaria would not comment on the complaint “to ensure privacy on behalf of all parties involved, especially the complainant.”
Unanimously appointed by the School Committee, Tahiliani received a contract that runs through 2024. Soon after taking the job, she began to hire a more diverse staff to better reflect the city’s demographics, as the state Department of Education and Secondary Education recommends, the complaint states. About 83 percent of Everett students are people of color and the administrative team was previously 100 percent white.
People of color are now 20 percent of her leadership team and the schools employ a family engagement manager, chief equity officer, and a group of family liaisons, Tahiliani‘s complaint notes.
“As a result of this, Mayor DeMaria began to openly accuse me of being a racist to members of the School Committee and the school community, stating that I only hire people of color and hate White people,” her complaint states.
The MCAD would not confirm the filing, which Tahiliani’s lawyer provided to the Globe.
“The MCAD can’t comment on any investigation that may be pending before the commission,” said spokesman H Harrison.
Tahiliani did not answer requests for comment but her lawyer, Benjamin Flam, said he was astounded by how she had been treated.
“As an employment lawyer, you think you’ve seen it all,” Flam said.
Flam said her treatment stands in stark comparison to that of her predecessor, a white man.
Frederick Foresteire, who was superintendent for 29 years, outlasted two ethics commission violations and a criminal indictment for accepting school air conditioners at his house. In 2019, the School Committee placed him on administrative leave after several staff members raised allegations of sexual harassment. He is now facing criminal assault charges. Foresteire could not be reached for comment.
DeMaria did not seek to undermine Foresteire or interfere with the School Committee as he has during Tahiliani’s tenure, the complaint alleged.
“Priya just wants to do the job she was appointed to do,” Flam said. “She filed this suit to prevent the further deterioration of that job and the seemingly inevitable unlawful termination of her role that’s coming.”
During Tahiliani’s tenure, DeMaria had pushed for a city charter change so that his honorary position on the School Committee would carry a vote. The School Committee’s attorney, Robert W. Galvin, asked the attorney general’s office to investigate the charter change, pointing out two ways it seemed inconsistent with state laws. An e-mail from Galvin that was attached to the MCAD complaint says that the City Council was obligated to hold a public hearing on the charter change before voting on it. And, Galvin noted in his e-mail, the inclusion of the mayor created a 10-member committee, creating the possibility of tie votes.
In an interview on Wednesday, Galvin reiterated his opposition to the change, noting that the 10-member committee has already deadlocked over at least two measures.
“I’m troubled by the whole thing, candidly,” Galvin said. “I mean, we have rules. And you’re supposed to follow those rules so that the public can comment on the matter and the School Committee can comment on the matter. And the matter just got passed. And then it went to the governor’s office. No one paid much attention.”
The School Committee’s conflicts were on display at a meeting on Tuesday night, although DeMaria was not present. A newly elected member, former city councilor Michael McLaughlin, had proposed seven agenda items that would have checked the superintendent’s authority or curbed school spending. They included an audit; a hiring freeze on all non-classroom positions; a freeze on raises; and a ban on extending contracts without School Committee approval. He also proposed removing the superintendent as “secretary” of the School Committee, a non-voting position, and proposed that she not regularly attend future committee meetings, which he said might “help relieve some of that stress and pressure” of leading the schools through a pandemic.
In response, Tahiliani made it clear she had not requested a change and would prefer to continue the “longstanding tradition” of serving the School Committee.
“I’m never asking for less work,” she said. “If you give me more work, I’ll do more work.”
McLaughlin retreated from many of the measures, most of which were sent to a committee for review. School Committee member Marcony Almeida-Barros said that at least one of his requests was “completely out of the scope of committee members.”
Performance at School Committee meetings was one point of contention in Tahiliani’s job review, with DeMaria raising concerns that “her posture, facial expressions, and other physical mannerisms visibly change during discussions and debates of issues.”
She likened it to criticism DeMaria raised about former city councilor Gerly Adrien, the first Black woman elected to the council.
“This is not an isolated incident. In City Council meetings, Mayor DeMaria made comments on Councilor Adrien’s facial expressions, stating that he would like to turn off her video and/or mute her,” she wrote in the complaint. “Mayor DeMaria also accused her of screaming or pointing her finger, yet a review of the video of that meeting proved his accusations were false.”
Adrien, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor and is no longer on the City Council, was among those to speak in Tahiliani’s defense Tuesday night.
“To see the actions that the School Committee wants to bring forth tonight, it’s sad,” Adrien said. “It’s frustrating and it’s disappointing.”
DeMaria, who has served as mayor since 2007, was also recently accused of demanding nearly $100,000 from the city clerk, a claim the FBI had begun investigating. He has strongly denied the charges, saying he was owed the money as part of a real estate deal, and he has sued the clerk and the Everett Leader Herald for defamation.
When he was narrowly reelected in November, DeMaria used his victory speech to issue a warning to people “who tried to sandbag us.”
“Let me tell you — I raised a lot of money and I’m going to go after a lot of people,” DeMaria said.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.