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School official hit over donations to charter school advocacy group

By Globe Staff 

When Paul Sagan, chairman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, faced calls for his resignation last September after it was revealed that he had donated $100,000 to a ballot campaign pushing the expansion of charter schools, Governor Charlie Baker leapt to his defense, calling it a “nothing burger.”

But at the time, Sagan was keeping a secret from the public: A month earlier he had donated nearly $500,000 to the nonprofit Families for Excellent Schools — Advocacy, which was quietly soliciting donations and then funneling them to the ballot campaign.

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Now, Sagan is again facing calls for his ouster from teachers’ unions and other education advocates after a state Office of Campaign and Political Finance investigation concluded last week that Families for Excellent Schools violated state law by not publicly disclosing its donors. As part of the announcement, state officials released the names of the donors and how much they gave.

At a time when Sagan has direct oversight over the opening and disciplining of charter schools, his donations are raising questions about whether he can be impartial in judging charter school performance and navigating contentious policy debates that pit the independently run public institutions against traditional schools.

While Sagan’s support of charter schools was well known before his appointment in 2015, many educators say they expected he would refrain from all fund-raising and other advocacy activities.

“How can you chair a board — that is supposed to be objective — when you throw around that much money?” said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, whose members largely opposed the charter school question. “I think his credibility as an education leader is severely damaged. . . . There is palpable anger out there.”

Sagan turned down interview requests through a spokeswoman. Instead he issued a short statement that gave no indication he would step down.

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“I trusted the organizations I supported to handle their fund-raising and disclosures appropriately,” Sagan said. “I will continue to focus on improving all the Commonwealth’s schools as the chairman of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, to maintain our position as the national leader in public education.”

The Office of Campaign and Political Finance levied the biggest fine in state history — $426,466 — against Families for Excellent Schools, but the investigation did not fault any individual donors.

Sagan’s decision to donate placed him squarely on one side of a contentious debate last year over whether charter schools should expand. The ballot campaign turned into the most expensive in state history, as business leaders and other charter advocates contributed millions of dollars to push for passage while teacher unions and others spent millions fighting it.

Not only did Sagan’s side lose overwhelmingly at the polls, but his relationship with key stakeholders, such as school committees, teachers’ unions, and some parent groups, is now increasingly strained.

Charter and traditional schools have been at odds with one another ever since charters first began opening in the mid-1990s. A primary tension is over funding. Every time students leave traditional schools for charters, they take thousands of dollars in state aid with them.

A spokeswoman said Sagan received an opinion from the state Ethics Commission in April 2016 that cleared him to make donations to the charter school campaign. After making the donations in August 2016, he filed a disclosure with the governor’s office on Sept. 2 indicating that he had made donations to organizations supporting the effort to expand charter schools.

However, that disclosure never identified the organizations by name and did not reveal the dollar amounts.

Sagan would not share the ethics opinion he received in April with the Globe.

Many educators say they don’t understand why Sagan never mentioned the nearly $500,000 donation he made to Families for Excellent Schools last September, after his $100,000 donation to the Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Public Schools came to light.

“The fact that $496,000 was hidden from the public eye is just deeply troubling,” said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “There’s a big difference between saying ‘I support charter schools’ and giving more than a half-million dollars to support the expansion of charter schools.”

The teachers association is one of several groups that belong to the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, which is circulating a petition calling on Baker to remove Sagan from the board. Other members include the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, Citizens for Public Schools, Boston Student Advisory Council/Youth on Board, and the Boston Teachers Union.

Their move follows calls last week from the Democratic Party for Sagan to resign.

Baker, however, is standing behind him.

“Paul Sagan brings extensive experience to his role as chairman and is dedicated to the administration’s vision to deliver a quality education to every student in the Commonwealth, regardless of their ZIP code, to ensure Massachusetts remains a national leader in education,” said Lizzy Guyton, the governor’s communications director.

Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that supports charter schools but stayed out of last year’s ballot campaign, defended Sagan, saying he was “a person of great integrity.”

“Even though he has convictions, he has conducted himself in office in a fair, impartial, and laudable way,” Grogan said.

Critics are expected to voice their frustration at next week’s state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, but Sagan doesn’t plan on attending in person. Instead, he will be participating remotely because he will be traveling, a spokeswoman said.

That means Sagan, who also serves as board chairman of ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization pushing for more transparency in campaign donations, will avoid the awkward situation of fielding questions from reporters about his donations.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said the kinds of donations Sagan made should be publicly known and not kept secret. She said such information is vital to voters, so they know who is behind any advertising and other campaigning that aims to influence their opinions.

“Our public officials are allowed to have a public policy opinion, but it must be fully apparent in the public eye,” Wilmot said.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.