Everett School Superintendent Priya Tahiliani and a second district administrator filed a joint suit against the city and its mayor, Carlo DeMaria, alleging racism, sexism, and retaliation, two weeks after the School Committee voted not to renew her contract despite public support and positive performance evaluations.
Tahiliani and Kim Tsai, a deputy superintendent, accused the mayor and School Committee of “blatant and overt acts of discrimination and retaliation” because they are women of color, because Tahiliani hired administrators of color, and because the two administrators were participating in a Department of Justice inquiry into Everett’s discriminatory practices.
Once Tahiliani and Tsai began participating in the federal probe, the lawsuit alleges, DeMaria had secret cameras installed in the superintendent’s office.
“The FBI removed those and is currently investigating that unlawful wiretapping activity,” according to the lawsuit. The FBI declined to comment.
In a statement, DeMaria denied the allegations in the suit.
“The credible facts of the matter demonstrate that Ms. Tahiliani and Ms. Tsai were never subjected to discrimination of any kind by the City and the Mayor and there is simply no evidence to the contrary,” DeMaria said. “The City of Everett and Mayor DeMaria have long demonstrated, in numerous ways, that they will not tolerate discrimination of any kind against anyone on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, or any other protected class.”
To support his position, DeMaria referenced initiatives such as the creation of the Everett Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
As for Tahiliani’s claim that DiMaria was behind the cameras in her office, a spokesman for the mayor, George Regan, said that it was a “bald-faced lie.”
“Those cameras were installed by the former superintendent of schools,” Regan said, referring to Frederick F. Foresteire, who plead guilty to two sexual assault allegations in February and is appealing a third.
The lawsuit in federal district court is a successor to similar complaints Tahiliani and Tsai filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. The lawsuit asks for an undetermined amount in damages and for the defendants to be ordered to cease and desist.
“The institutional racism championed by Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria and his cronies for the School Committee was and still is palpable,” the complaint reads. “Mayor DeMaria had relatively little involvement with the School Committee until Tahiliani and Tsai — two non-white women — were appointed. Their appointment upset his apple cart.”
The federal lawsuit comes after a March 6 meeting, where the School Committee voted 6 to 4 against renewing her contract, citing student safety and school cleanliness concerns. Tahiliani has led the school system since March 2020 and her existing contract extends until March 2024.
According to the lawsuit, Tahiliani and Tsai were scheduled to meet with the Department of Justice regarding their concerns two days after that committee meeting. The federal scrutiny dates to last summer, when US Attorney Rachael Rollins opened an investigation of possible civil rights violations in city government following a series of racist incidents.
At the School Committee meeting, supporters of Tahiliani acknowledged that some teachers and parents were disgruntled, but cited extensive positive feedback from students and families. Most of the more than 20 public commenters at the meeting were on Tahiliani’s side. Speakers praised her efforts to engage the students and families of the mostly Latino district.
“While the School Committee’s decision to reject renewal of my contract is devastating, I remain proud of all we have accomplished,” Tahiliani said in a statement released following the meeting. “I will continue to devote my remaining time as superintendent to leading the schools which are the foundation of our community. With students like ours, the future of Everett is bright.”
Tahiliani is the first person of color to lead the Everett school district, where students of color are 85 percent of the enrollment. Prior to her arrival, the central office administrative team was 100 percent white, but after taking the job, she began appointing a more diverse staff.
Tahiliani was one of fewer than two dozen superintendents of color in Massachusetts last school year, and one of several who have been put on leave, are out of their jobs, or will be soon. Last month, Wayland Superintendent Omar Easy, who is Black, filed an MCAD complaint of his own against the town after being put on leave by the School Committee. In 2019, when he was executive vice principal for academics in Everett, Easy filed an MCAD complaint against the city that was later dismissed.
Tahiliani and Tsai previously sued Boston Public Schools, alleging that while working as executive directors in the Office of English Language Learners, their annual salaries of $107,000 were at least 30 percent less than what men were paid in similar positions in other departments. The lawsuit was settled in 2020, according to the state court docket.
“The fact that she is a woman of color is incredibly important as Everett students are 80 percent or more students of color,” said Tiana Allen, an Everett High School junior and an organizer of a student walkout that occurred three days after the School Committee vote.
“I would support anyone who has done what Priya has done,” Allen said. “I feel she is highly qualified and representative of what Everett is all about.”
Dozens of students and other supporters of the superintendent walked from the high school to City Hall on March 9 as a show of support. The students called for Tahiliani to be offered a new contract and for DeMaria to be removed from the School Committee.
Prior to Tahiliani’s tenure in Everett, DeMaria did not have a voting seat on the School Committee. The City Council changed the city charter at his request to make him a voting member of the School Committee in January 2021; the lawsuit alleges that DeMaria only sought to join the School Committee once Tahiliani began hiring nonwhite applicants.
Tahiliani was unanimously appointed superintendent in 2019; several members of the School Committee have been replaced in the meantime. She has received consistently positive performance evaluations from the School Committee, but she has alleged that DeMaria and the current School Committee intentionally undermined her and interfered with her ability to manage the schools.
Among other claims, the lawsuit also accuses DeMaria of providing less generous school funding during Tahiliani’s tenure than previously, of attempting to limit her role at School Committee meetings, of routinely communicating with white men about school matters rather than Tahiliani or other women of color, and of using “racist, sexist rhetoric” and “hostile and disparate treatment.”
One other School Committee member, Michael McLaughlin, is also named in the complaint. The two administrators allege that he used public records laws to seek interview notes from the hiring of various staff of color — but not for white hires. McLaughlin could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Tahiliani’s contract vote came less than a week after Foresteire, her predecessor, was released from jail pending an appeal of his conviction for indecent assault and battery on a woman who worked for him while he was superintendent. Foresteire, who served 29 years in the role, pleaded guilty to two other sexual assault allegations.
“We supported a superintendent who was a white man who controlled our school system for over 25 years, who is a registered sex offender, who has had three people that spoke out about his abuse,” said Juan Soler-Ramos, another student walkout organizer and a high school sophomore. “And then the moment we have a woman, let alone a woman of color, who gives a voice to the students, we want to shut that down.”
Christopher Huffaker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.