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Balance of power poised to flip on Everett School Committee after election

Damain Allen, an Everett public school parent, spoke at a rally on the front steps of Everett High School before the School Committee meeting in the high school’s library Monday night.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The long-running saga over control of Everett Public Schools is set to take yet another turn, one that critics say is being engineered by Mayor Carlo DeMaria in a last-ditch effort to consolidate power.

Just weeks after a municipal election that unseated or rejected most of his candidates for the School Committee, the lame-duck board is poised to appoint a new superintendent to replace the one he and his allies had forced out earlier this year despite objections from members of the school community.

The district began the search for former superintendent Priya Tahiliani’s replacement in the fall, and according to the current timeline, is aiming to make a decision in December. Now, community members are demanding the committee pause the process until the new year, to prevent the mayor and the old guard from installing a new superintendent and locking the district into a binding contract before the new members take office in January.

Voters in November overwhelmingly rejected School Committee candidates DeMaria endorsed: Of the six he backed, four lost their races, including three highly established incumbents who were unseated by newcomers. All three current members who voted to renew Tahiliani’s contract as well as against placing her on leave won their reelection races.

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Put more simply, the mayor’s allies on the committee have dwindled, from six people on the 10-member committee to only two. The results are set to entirely shift the makeup of the governing body, with DeMaria no longer having the support of the majority. DeMaria is still a voting member of the committee.

The mayor declined requests for comment.

“The mayor never welcomed hearing the voice of the community, and it was through the election that the community was heard,” said Tom Scott, co-executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

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Marcony Almeida Barros and Samantha Lambert, two recently reelected School Committee members who voted against ousting Tahiliani, said the new superintendent should ultimately be chosen by the School Committee members who will be working with them.

“Why the rush? What are they afraid of?” said Almeida Barros, who represents Ward 5 and ran unopposed in November.

Lambert, an at-large member, added, “The election was pivotal and the voices of our electorate should be respected.”

Of the five new members elected to the committee, only one was endorsed by the mayor: Joseph D’Onofrio, who did not respond to a request for comment.

The other four — Joanna Garren, Robin Babcock, Margaret Cornelio, and Samantha Hurley — are mothers and a grandmother of current students in Everett Public Schools.

Babcock, who works at the University of Massachusetts Boston and has a 16-year-old student in the district, said she ran because she felt the committee was more focused on political agendas than addressing issues like overcrowding.

“I felt like any decisions were voting in favor of whatever the mayor had decided and not what the kids needed,” Babcock said. “There’s just so many things that need to be done.”

The four newly elected female members of the committee, along with Almeida Barros and Lambert, expressed optimism the body will return to focusing on issues in the new year, a change from the strife and contention that came with ousting the former superintendent.

Since she started in the role in 2020, Tahiliani received consistently positive performance reviews by the School Committee. Teachers and students have said she increased resources for certain programs in the district and advocated for students of color, who make up a majority of the district’s enrollment.

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But her relationship with the mayor was rocky. Less than a year into Tahiliani’s tenure, the City Council changed the city charter at the mayor’s request to make him a voting member of the School Committee.

At the start of 2022, Tahiliani filed a claim with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination alleging racial and gender discrimination and retaliation by the mayor and the School Committee after she hired more people of color to administrative and leadership roles in the district.

In March 2023, six of the committee’s 10 members — including the mayor — voted to not renew the superintendent’s contract, which was met with outrage from the community. Tahiliani subsequently filed a federal lawsuit against the School Committee and the mayor, alleging racism, sexism, and retaliation.

Then, eight days before the election in November, seven members voted to place Tahiliani on paid administrative leave based on complaints from 10 unnamed district employees who claimed she created a hostile work environment. The complaints have not been made public, and the city has so far refused the Globe’s request for the documents.

Tahiliani’s contract was not due to expire until March 2024, and the committee has since appointed an interim superintendent.

Mike Mangan, the current chairperson of the committee, voted in March to renew Tahiliani’s contract, but also with the majority in October to place her on leave. He and Michael McLaughlin, who represents Ward 6 on the School Committee and voted with the mayor in both superintendent votes, decided not to run for reelection.

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“It’s just very, very toxic over here,” Mangan said. “As much as I love this city and been here so long, I just didn’t have the desire to do it” anymore.

Anu Jayanth, the district’s assistant superintendent of finance, recently submitted her letter of resignation, saying it is “blatantly obvious” that the mayor cares more about control and power than “to accelerate student achievement and focus on children.”

“There is still so much work to be done, but I am completely disheartened and disillusioned by the blatant racism, nepotism, and cronyism that has been on full display since day one,” Jayanth wrote in the letter.

Millie Cardello, who was endorsed by the mayor but lost her reelection bid in Ward 1, defended her votes to not renew Tahiliani’s contract and to place her on leave.

“Most people do not know the whole story,” Cardello said, and denied the mayor had any influence on her vote, or anyone else’s.

“We vote the best way that we think is the right way for the district,” Cardello added.

Mangan, the committee’s current chairperson who also appointed the search committee, said that the process to replace Tahiliani is “moving along” and that it’s very possible that candidate interviews will begin soon.

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As part of the search process, the district solicited community input and released an engagement report with findings and feedback. The top two issues raised in open text responses were, “Don’t believe a search is necessary, and the current superintendent should be reinstated” and “Would like to see a restructuring of the School Committee and the mayor’s role in the School Committee ended.”

While the committee will be overhauled as a result of November’s election, the possibility of reinstating Tahiliani as superintendent is less certain. (Tahiliani recently was a finalist in the superintendent search in Melrose Public Schools, but last week withdrew from the process, according to the city’s mayor.)

“Priya is going to land on her feet, she’s that good,” said Scott, of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “But the saddest part of all this is that the students and families of Everett are the ones who have lost the most out of all this.”


Niki Griswold can be reached at niki.griswold@globe.com. Follow her @nikigriswold.