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Mass. education official defends donation to charter school effort

Paul Sagan is the chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File 2011
Paul Sagan is the chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

MALDEN — Paul Sagan, the chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who is facing calls for his ouster after making previously undisclosed donations to a pro-charter-school ballot campaign, addressed his critics for the first time in public Tuesday morning — albeit remotely from a video feed from Eastern Europe.

Sagan, speaking via Skype at a meeting of the board, said he thought about divulging the donations but decided against it because he was worried he would be perceived as politicizing the issue, emphasizing he made the donations as a private citizen.

“On balance, I thought that if I went ahead and announced my donations, that opponents of Question Two would accuse me of using my position as chair of the board as a platform to help influence support for expanding the statutory cap on charter schools. Yes, I did want the vote to go that way because I thought it would be good for more families in Massachusetts,” Sagan said.

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“But I was clear and unequivocal with these organizations,” Sagan said. “I would not help them with fund-raising, and they could not use, or even reference, my involvement with the board in any of their activities, specifically because I did not think that would be appropriate.”

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Sagan’s donations of $496,000 to Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy came to light earlier this month, following an investigation by the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, which revealed that the group wrongfully solicited donations to support a ballot question to expand charter schools and kept the names of individual donors private.

In announcing the findings of the investigation, which resulted in a hefty fine to the organization, the state campaign and political finance office released the names of the donors and the amounts they gave.

That Sagan’s name was among the donors stunned many education organizations that opposed the ballot question because Sagan took heat last September when it was revealed he had donated $100,000 to support the efforts of another organization pushing for the ballot question.

Many education groups didn’t understand why Sagan said nothing at that time about the other donations.

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“It’s easy for some folks to say now they would praise me for making a voluntary and early disclosure, but I doubt that’s what they would have done,” he said. “I suspect they would have accused me of politicking.”

“Again, I’m really sorry if some people are upset with the decision I made,” he said.

Sagan said that before he made the donations in August 2016, he sought and received an opinion from the state’s ethics commission. He also said he filed a disclosure with the governor’s office a month after he made the donations out of an abundance of caution and transparency.

The disclosure, however, did not identify the groups he donated to by name and how much he gave.

None of Sagan’s critics, who include the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance and the Massachusetts Teachers Union, spoke during the public comment period.

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