Baker dismisses criticism of education board’s donation to charter group

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STATE HOUSE — Gov. Charlie Baker called the controversy over a $100,000 donation made by Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Chairman Paul Sagan to a pro-charter school group a “nothing burger,” dismissing calls for his handpicked chairman to resign.

“I think that’s ridiculous,” Baker told reporters after an afternoon meeting with legislative leaders at the State House.

The donation, which was disclosed in a pre-election campaign finance report filed Friday by the Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Public Schools, showed that Sagan made the $100,000 donation on Aug. 10 to the group behind the ballot question to expand the number of charter schools that can be licensed in Massachusetts.

Baker, who is a strong proponent of the ballot question, said criticism from Democrats and calls by anti-charter school advocates for Sagan to resign his position on the board were distracting from debates over the needs of children.

“This ballot question is about giving those kids the same opportunity that the other kids across the Commonwealth have, which is the ability to go to a school that’s going to prepare them for their future. If other people want to make this all about the adults, that’s fine. We’re going to focus on the kids,” Baker said.

The No on Question 2 campaign called Monday for Sagan’s resignation, suggesting his donation reveals a bias that should prohibit him from serving on a state board that decides whether to license charter schools and evaluates their performance.

“Common sense tells you that $100,000 impairs anyone’s judgement and impartiality,” said Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP and chair of the Campaign to Save Our Public Schools, in a statement. “How can Sagan be trusted to properly regulate charter schools when he’s so invested in expanding them? The chairman needs to step down immediately.”

Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Sen. Thomas McGee, who on Sunday announced that he would relinquish that post after the November election, also criticized the donation, but stopped short of demanding Sagan’s resignation.

McGee, a Lynn Democrat, tried to link Sagan’s activity to the scandal involving Department of Conservation and Recreation employees using state resources to plan a pre-Fourth of July party for Baker administration and Republican Party officials.

“On the heels of the Baker Administration’s use of taxpayer money to throw a July 3rd party for Republican elite, the $100,000 donation made by the Baker appointed Paul Sagan again calls into question the governor’s judgment on who best serves the people of the Commonwealth,” McGee said in a statement. “As Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mr. Sagan has a duty to fulfill that position in an unbiased manner, free from personal opinion. A donation to ‘Lift the Cap’ that is more than most working families make in a year suggests an inappropriate bias and, at the very least, shows poor judgment.”

Baker said that Sagan filed all of the proper paperwork with the state Ethics Commission before making the donation, and had been cleared.

“Are we going to get into the business of saying every private citizen of Massachusetts has no ability to do anything associated with their private position? Again, this is about adults complaining about adults,” Baker said.

He also dismissed the idea that Sagan would be unable to impartially assess the performance of licensed charter schools because he made a donation supporting the expansion of the access to charters for students seeking an alternative to their traditional public school.

“It’s a nothing-burger,” he said.

Baker appointed Sagan to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as its chairman in March 2015, describing him as holding the same position of executive in residence at General Catalyst Partners in Cambridge that the governor held before being elected.

Sagan has also held a number of previous jobs in business, including CEO of Akamai Technologies, and is listed on the campaign finance disclosure as CEO of Lowell Cambridge Service, Corp.

— Written by Matt Murphy

Copyright State House News Service