STATE ED BOARD CHAIR DECLARES DONATIONS "WILL NOT BE A DISTRACTION"
By Katie Lannan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 26, 2017....Recently under fire for his $500,000 donation to a group that backed a charter school expansion ballot question last year, the chairman of the state's education board said Tuesday he did not announce the gift so he would not be accused of politicking from his post.
An Office of Campaign and Political Finance investigation this month uncovered that Sagan had made a previously undisclosed contribution to Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy during the expansion campaign. The group, not its donors, was responsible for disclosing the information.
The New York-based group agreed to pay $426,466, the largest fine in state campaign finance history, to resolve questions over whether it participated in a scheme to conceal the identities of donors backing the charter question.
In a statement Tuesday, Sagan responded to his critics, saying he did not wish to "blur the lines" between his work as board chair and donations of personal funds. He said he filed disclosures and was advised by the Ethics Commission that service on the board would not bar him from contributing personal funds as a private citizen to any political campaign or advocacy group.
"I have been criticized for not making a voluntary disclosure of my donations ahead of any disclosure by the organizations themselves. I did give careful
consideration to making such a disclosure – to simply announcing that I had made donations to two organizations that supported lifting the statutory cap on
charters. But I decided not to do so," Sagan said.
He continued, "On balance, I thought that if I went ahead and announced my donations, opponents of Question Two would accuse me of using my position as chair of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as a platform to help influence support for expanding the statutory cap on charter schools," Sagan said in the statement. "Yes, I did want the vote to go that way, because I thought it would be good for more families in Massachusetts. But I was clear and unequivocal with these organizations: I would not help them with fundraising and they could not use, or even reference, my involvement with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, in any of their activities, specifically because I did not think that would be appropriate."
Sagan read from his statement at a board meeting Tuesday, which he attended via Skype because he is traveling for business in Europe.
"I am sorry if some decisions and actions from my personal life upset some members of the community, but first and foremost, this will not be a distraction for the work of the Board," he said, according to his statement. "I hope that we are all about the same thing: Building and supporting great public
schools in the Commonwealth. I understand that we sometimes differ on the best ways to do that."
Question 2 failed, with 38 percent in favor and 62 percent against. Supporters spent more than $46.6 million, with nearly $20.5 million expended by Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, according to OCPF figures. Question 2 opponents, organized as Save Our Public Schools, spent more than $15.5 million.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association and state Democratic Party are among groups that have called for Sagan, an appointee of Gov. Charlie Baker, to resign in the wake of the OCPF investigation.
MTA President Barbara Madeloni, writing in an online message, encouraged union members and public education advocates to attend a rally outside Harvard's Institute of Politics Thursday to protest both Sagan and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
DeVos, a supporter of school voucher and school choice programs, is slated to visit to speak about "empowering parents" at the Harvard Kennedy School.
"Our message is this: Dump DeVos and dump Paul Sagan, chair of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education," Madeloni wrote. "Both DeVos and Sagan have used their vast wealth to promote the privatization of public education."
Madeloni said the campaign finance issue "shined a bright light on how much more strongly he is committed to quasi-private charter schools than he is to the public schools his board is supposed to oversee and support."
In his statement, Sagan pushed back against the notion that he wants schools privatized, saying that charter schools are public schools that are carefully monitored by the state board and cannot operate as commercial or for-profit entities.
"We hold all public schools to high standards, including charters," he said. "We'll close down any that are unable to live up to their charters. We have already done so."
Sagan also gave $100,000 to the Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Public Schools, which that organization disclosed in an Aug. 10 campaign finance report.
Sagan said he sought and followed guidance from attorneys and the state Ethics Commission and sent a disclosure letter to Baker in September 2016, informing him of the donations. He said he has no control over the disclosure obligations or practices of any group he gives to but expects "them to do what's right under whatever regulations they operate under."
Sgan said he has "been incredibly fortunate" to be able to serve the public and "to have more resources than I ever imagined I would have, and with, my wife, to have the privilege of giving much of it away in a manner consistent with our values."
In his statement, he said that over the years he contributed to charitable, educational and political organizations. Further information about Sagan's non-political donations was not available from his office.
[Michael Norton contributed reporting]