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February 16, 2017

Credit: DonnaG, Flickr

The $16,000,000.00 question unanswered by Great Schools Massachusetts’ electoral drubbing last November is: Who put up the millions concealed under the name Families for Excellent Schools? The Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) can answer that question.

You might be thinking, good heavens man, where could there possibly exist legal precedent requiring billionaire political patrons to give an honest accounting of themselves? It exists in a Disposition Agreement reached between OCPF and the Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee, aka the phony operation behind November’s Question 1 bid for a slots parlor in Revere.

The Horse Racing Committee received its funds through a front called Capital Productions; Great Schools Massachusetts (GSM) received its funds through a front called Families for Excellent Schools (FES). Capital and FES both got their money from hidden donors. OCPF found that the Horse Racing Committee and Capital Productions violated M.G.L. ch. 55, sec. 10 by knowingly dealing in funds “whose true source has been disguised.” OCPF forced Horse Racing and Capital’s true donors’ names to be revealed. It could do the same with GSM and FES.

We don’t know what we’ll find when FES’s true funders are revealed. But in the Horse Racing case, the amended disclosures forced by OCPF show that hundreds of thousands of dollars came in from two investors based in Japan and Cambodia.

Great Schools Massachusetts and Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, it’s your turn. Let’s see if we can’t help send OCPF down the evidence trail:

  • Between 2013 to 2015 Boston based non-profit Strategic Grant Partners (SGP) provided Families for Excellent Schools a total of $2.15 million “To help support launch of Massachusetts site.” Without that $2 million plus there would be no Families for Excellent Schools in Massachusetts, no Great Schools Massachusetts, and no charter schools ballot question.
  • In 2015 GSM needed funds to hire a signature gathering firm to get on the 2016 ballot. To do so it raised about $493,000.00. Two hundred thirty-one thousand dollars came from donors who annually contribute to SGP, including: Denise Dupre, William Helman, Joshua Bekenstein, Martin Mannion, Paul Edgerley, Michael Frieze, Seth Klarman, and Joanna Jacobson, who is Managing Director of SGP.  Without those contributions there would be no Great Schools Massachusetts, no signatures, and no ballot question.
  • In 2016 every one of the SGP donors who gave birth to Families for Excellent Schools in Massachusetts and suckled the infant Great Schools Massachusetts disappeared from OCPF records; not one was on record giving to any of the committees supporting Question 2.
  • But Jacobson and Klarman didn’t disappear entirely because an email trail between aides to the governor and Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge shows that Kittredge scheduled Jacobson and Klarman to attend two separate “charter event(s)” with the governor (Brianna Wehrs is the governor’s scheduler): 

  • Kittredge was the staffer managing the schedules and representing the interests of his principles, jj and klarman. FES worked for jj and klarman.
  • According to OCPF records, in 2016 FES contributed at least $16 million in cash to Great Schools Massachusetts.
  • FES also contributed about $900,000.00 in-kind to GSM, most for staff time. FES ran the campaign.

What’s at stake here is whether the $16 million came out of FES’s general treasury or was solicited and funneled to GSM for a political purpose. If the money came out of general treasury funds, FES might slither away. But if the money was raised and spent for Question 2, big problem. OCPF has the authority to make GSM and FES come clean.

Tax exempt organizations like Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy (FESA) file Form 990 Tax returns with the IRS and those returns are public. They tell the aggregate amounts raised and spent each year. Note in the following table that the returns for tax years 2013 and 2015 are missing, and that the amount for 2016 is not the amount expended from the Form 990 but the amount FESA expended contributing to GSM:

That’s right – FESA had never before raised or expended much more than $2 million in a given year – but in 2016, all of a sudden, it raised and shipped $16 million to GSM. General treasury funds, or raised and earmarked for Question 2? OCPF has the power to make that determination.

Why does this matter? It matters because citizens have the right to know, even after the fact, who is paying to manipulate their democracy. It matters so that the rich are held to account and future dark money schemers have to worry about being revealed. It matters so that voters know that institutions like OCPF charged with making sure we have reasonably fair elections are doing their jobs. It matters because if Massachusetts voters are facing a Koch Brothers Lite operation we have a right to know about it.

When Families for Excellent Schools moved into Connecticut CEO Kittredge told the New Haven Register that FES “doesn’t believe in individual campaign donor disclosure.” Massachusetts should show him and his billionaire investors that we do.

Louis D. Brandeis: "We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money, and not charter schools. I've never written about charter schools, nor taken a position on them. I have taken a position against plutocracy and in favor of democracy, and thus against dark money.]

Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Great Schools Massachusetts, Families for Excellent Schools

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