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State education chairman, a controversial supporter of charter schools, steps down

Paul Sagan’s departure comes four years after Governor Charlie Baker appointed him to the board.
Paul Sagan’s departure comes four years after Governor Charlie Baker appointed him to the board.Globe Staff/File 2011/Globe Staff

The chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who repeatedly drew criticism for his financial support of charter schools will step down, state officials said Tuesday.

Paul Sagan’s departure comes four years after Governor Charlie Baker appointed him to the board. His tenure was marked by calls for his resignation after giving more than a half-million dollars to organizations quietly raising money for a 2016 ballot-question campaign to expand charter schools, which voters ultimately rejected.

Sagan presided over his last meeting Tuesday.

“I am extremely proud of the work this board has done over the past four years maintaining the highest standards in the country for public education while working to improve the educational outcomes for children in the Commonwealth,” Sagan said in a statement.

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During his tenure as chairman, Sagan and the board appointed Jeffrey Riley, the former state receiver of Lawrence schools, to be commissioner of elementary and secondary education. They also launched the new MCAS and redesigned the school accountability system.

A state education spokeswoman said there was no connection between Sagan’s departure and his financial support of charter schools.

Baker is replacing Sagan with a fellow board member, Katherine Craven, who is chief administrative and financial officer for Babson College. The governor’s office also said that Matthew Hills, a former Newton School Committee chairman who is a managing director at LLM Capital Partners, will join the 11-member board.

Controversy over Sagan’s donations flared up twice during his tenure. The first donation — $100,000 to the Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Public Schools — became public in 2016. The other gift of $500,000 to Families for Excellent Schools — Advocacy didn’t become public until 2017.

The donations came to light via campaign finance disclosures and, in the case of the latter, a state Office of Campaign and Political Finance investigation that did not implicate Sagan but resulted in a $426,466 fine against Families for Excellent Schools.

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Each time, his critics, including teachers unions who opposed charter expansion, called for his resignation, arguing his decision to take a side in the contentious charter school debate rendered him incapable of making unbiased decisions regarding charter school proposals that would go before the state board, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere at times in the boardroom.

At Tuesday’s meeting, one of the last presentations Sagan introduced was on charter school funding, a volatile issue that pits charter and traditional schools against each other because students going to charters take with them thousands of dollars in state aid from their hometown districts.

Interrupting Sagan’s remarks, member Margaret McKenna, who previously served as chair, quipped, “Excuse me, is this your going away present for us?”

Some education advocates said they were looking forward to new leadership.

“It has felt awkward to have someone leading the board who didn’t have the best interest of all public school students as his top priority,” said Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, a Boston advocacy organization critical of charter schools.

Charlotte Kelly, executive director of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, a coalition of educators, parents, and students that has repeatedly called for Sagan to resign, said his departure has been a long time coming.

“We are thrilled to see a multimillionaire who violated the public trust . . . leave the board,” she said.

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Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said, “We hope that the new chair Katherine Craven and member Matthew Hills will prioritize the needs of students in district public schools.”

Sagan, who is a managing director at General Catalyst, a venture capitalist firm in Cambridge, has defended the donations, saying he received an opinion from the state’s ethics commission clearing the way.

State officials praised Sagan.

“Paul’s steady and thoughtful leadership will be missed by all of us, but the positive impact he has had on the lives of our children will endure for years to come,” said James Peyser, the state’s education secretary, in a statement. “All of us owe Paul a deep debt of gratitude.”

Baker said, “We are thankful for Paul’s hard work and dedication to improved standards, high-quality assessments, and overall accountability.”

The governor also said he looked forward to Craven’s leadership.

“Katherine’s expertise in school finance will provide valuable insight as we work to increase investments in our schools to help close achievement gaps among low-income students, special education, and English language learners,” he said in a statement.


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