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Big money from Boston business leaders in favor of charter schools

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Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester & Chair Paul Sagan during a meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden last year.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Boston's business leaders are breaking out their checkbooks for a ballot question that could allow dozens of additional charter schools to open in the state.

Most of the $11.5 million raised this year for the referendum — which would, if it passes in November, allow up to 12 new charter schools or expansions a year — came from out-of-state sources. But a number of prominent local leaders played a big role, according to newly released records from the state Office of Campaign & Political Finance.

At Fidelity Investments, for example, nearly 30 employees, including portfolio managers and executive vice presidents, donated to the effort. Their contributions totaled about $60,000, many of it in $1,000 increments. Fidelity chief Abby Johnson set the tone last year, by donating $40,000 in the early days of the campaign.


Then there's the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, the crew of high-profile CEOs whose stated mission is to build up the state's economy. Fidelity's Johnson is a member of that group. While Fidelity didn't donate from its corporate coffers, four other companies affiliated with the Partnership did: EMC Corp., Partners HealthCare, the Kraft Group, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Together, those four gave $325,000.

EMC, by the way, made its $75,000 donation less than a week before it was swallowed up into what is now known as Dell Technologies earlier this month.

A number of individuals equaled or topped those corporate gifts with $100,000 donations of their own. They included National Amusements president Shari Redstone: She took a break from the succession saga surrounding her dad, media mogul Sumner Redstone, to write a check in August.

Other hundred-grand donors included Analog Devices chairman and tech investor Ray Stata, VC firm Berkshire Partners co-founder Bradley Bloom, Charles Longfield of cloud computing firm Blackbaud, and Akamai Technologies CEO-turned-venture capitalist Paul Sagan.


Sagan's donation drew the ire on Monday of the anti-charter group, an organization funded by the teachers' unions. That's because Sagan also happens to chair the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which oversees the state's charter schools. In a filing with the state Ethics Commission, Sagan wrote that he has told pro-charter forces that these are personal donations, they can't use his state title in an endorsement, and that he won't participate in their fundraising activities.

Governor Charlie Baker, who appointed Sagan to his state government role in 2015, is an unabashed supporter of charter schools and has passionately argued for more in the state.

Other prominent local donors included Capital One executive Steve Mugford ($60,000) and State Street's James Phalen ($10,000).

"The business community knows that an educated workforce is important to future economic growth," said Dominic Slowey, spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. "I think the business community also recognizes that if something works, you don't stifle its expansion. You nurture its expansion."

The proponents argue that charter schools can offer a more flexible alternative to public schools, and can be particularly important in inner cities. The critics, meanwhile, say charters siphon away valuable funds from the public systems.

Executives were essentially absent from the list of big donors to Save Our Public Schools, the anti-charter school group. But the unions, led by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, filled much of the void, ensuring the group raised nearly $7 million this year.

Spokesman Steve Crawford pointed out that the donations to the pro-charter cause from local business leaders can't compare to the $1.8 million that siblings Jim and Alice Walton gave. The scions of the family behind Wal-Mart Stores are well-known charter school supporters.


Crawford also pointed to the roughly $6 million that an affiliate of Families for Excellent Schools gave this year. The New York nonprofit first established itself in Massachusetts in 2014. But the sources of its funds aren't tracked by the state.

"We're certainly not surprised that a pro-choice ballot question is being supported by local businesses," Crawford said. "What is surprising is the enormous amount of money that is coming from out of state, including from the Walton family and others. [And] the donations that have been made public are just the tip of the iceberg."

Jon Chesto can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.