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Unions want investigation into pro-charter donations

A student volunteer at City on a Hill Charter School in Roxbury checked names of future students drawn from a list of hopefuls on the school’s lottery day in 2014.Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff/File 2014/Globe Staff

Federal and state authorities are being asked to investigate the propriety of donations made by wealthy hedge fund managers to the ballot campaign that would expand the number of charter schools in Massachusetts.

Teachers unions that oppose the ballot question allege the donations by the hedge fund managers would be an attempt to circumvent laws banning securities and finance executives who deal with public pension funds from financially supporting political figures who oversee those funds. The unions want the Securities and Exchange Commission and state authorities to determine whether the donations pose a “possible pay-to-play scheme.”

The issue was first raised Thursday in an article in the International Business Times that reported that $778,000 had been donated to the campaign supporting Question 2 on the November ballot by executives from eight financial firms that have management contracts with the state pension fund.


Governor Charlie Baker, a leading supporter of the pro-charter campaign, appoints three members to the nine-member Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management board.

“Retirees need to know that investment decisions are being made based on their financial security, not to curry favor with Governor Baker and his pension board appointees,’’ said Tom Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts.

But because the donations are going to support a ballot measure — and not to the governor’s own campaign committee — the contributions would appear not to violate the regulatory restrictions, a point the unions acknowledge.

The governor’s aides also noted that the governor is not personally raising money for the campaign.

Baker political adviser Jim Conroy dismissed the issue raised by the union leaders, saying that “while Governor Baker has worked hard to advance the goals of the campaign to offer children a better education, the solicitation of campaign contributions is left to the campaign fund-raising operation.”


Still, the unions say the donations to Baker’s political cause raise an issue of “propriety.”

“This is about the integrity of our pension investments and the integrity of our elections,” said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “We need an investigation to find out whether these firms are wielding inappropriate influence in state government.”

The controversy comes amid an intense battle over charter schools. Question 2 would raise the existing cap on the number of charter schools in the state, allowing for a dozen new or expanded schools each year. The governor has become the public face of the effort, appearing in a new television ad touting the benefits of charter schools, particularly to students in struggling communities. Opponents say charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools.

With less than two weeks before the vote, Massachusetts residents appear deeply divided over the issue.

A new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll showed voters evenly split, with 45 percent in favor, 45 percent opposed, and 9 percent still undecided.

Frank Phillips can be reached at frank.phillips@globe.com.