Charter ballot money is fuel on ed debate fire

When asked a year ago about the propriety of the chairman of the state board of education donating $100,000 to the campaign to raise the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker deemed the matter a “nothingburger.”

He may have been right. It turns out that donation was just the lettuce, tomato, and onion. The juicy half-pound burger came in the form of an additional half-million dollars that Paul Sagan quietly dropped into the ballot initiative effort to expand charters in Massachusetts.

Earlier this month, officials levied the largest campaign finance violation fine in state history against a New York group that funneled $15 million into the ballot campaign without disclosing its donors. Among the contributions newly disclosed as part the disposition agreement state officials reached with Families for Excellent Schools – Advocacy were $496,000 from Sagan and $275,000 from Mark Nunnelly, the state’s chief information officer.

While there was no finding of campaign finance wrongdoing on the part of the donors, the revelations are not playing well in the court of public opinion. As chairman of the state board, Sagan oversees the authorization of new charter schools and the oversight of existing charters.

Not only have teachers unions and other charter school opponents jumped on the new revelations, Democrats see an opening to bloody up a popular Republican governor as he readies for a presumed reelection race next year.

Baker was the driving force behind last November’s failed ballot campaign to boost charter schools. The state Democratic Party called for Sagan to answer more questions about the donations or resign and for Baker to “come clean” on the matter. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez said Sagan should resign or be fired. Setti Warren, another Democrat in the race, sent an email to supporters saying it’s “hard to imagine Charlie Baker didn’t know about” the “illegal scheme” to fund the ballot campaign.

Baker said Sagan and Nunnelly did nothing improper, but said he cannot recall “off the top of my head” whether Sagan ever told him about the $500,000 donation he made on top of the previously disclosed $100,000 contribution.

The ballot campaign blow-up is adding to a partisan divide that has emerged on many education issues.

In 1993, Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass the state’s landmark Education Reform Act, which ushered in a new education standards and accountability, including the MCAS exam, and also authorized the opening of charter schools.

Two decades later, Baker’s ill-fated push for the charter ballot question drew opposition from lots of Democratic officials, who said charter schools are undermining funding for traditional school districts. And Democrats in the Legislature are getting behind a bill to scrap the high-stakes MCAS graduation requirement, a move that the state party endorsed at its convention this summer.

Massachusetts charter schools, and those in Boston in particular, have been deemed by researchers to be among the most effective in the country in raising achievement levels among poor and minority students.

Charter school leaders say the “dark money” donations sloshing around in the ballot question campaign should be a separate issue from the debate about the role of charters in public education. But the mess created by those behind last year’s ballot campaign is blurring that line, expanding the partisan divide on education issues, and giving charter opponents plenty of fresh material to work with.



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Daniel Kelley, the interim general manager of Greenfield’s quasi-public internet utility, was fired by Mayor William Martin amid a Town Council investigation. (Greenfield Recorder)

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