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School superintendent in Everett, Massachusetts, alleges discrimination, retaliation in federal suit

The Sumner G. Whittier School in Everett, Mass.
Robin Lubbock
/
WBUR
The Sumner G. Whittier School in Everett, Mass.

Everett’s two top school officials filed a scathing lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court Tuesday, alleging a culture of racism, sex discrimination and retaliation against their efforts to diversify district leadership.

In their complaint, Priya Tahiliani — the district’s superintendent since 2020 — and Kim Tsai, her deputy, allege “blatant and overt acts of discrimination and retaliation” at the hands of Everett’s mayor, Carlo DeMaria, and his allies in city government.

The suit comes just weeks after the Everett School Committee voted not to renew Tahiliani’s contract by a 6-4 vote.

The complaint includes a litany of allegations, including that DeMaria deliberately lowered district funding during Tahiliani’s tenure, that Tahiliani was faulted for her “facial expressions and [reminded of] the need to smile” and that city officials installed surveillance cameras in Tahiliani’s office after she complained to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).

Tahiliani and Tsai say those alleged actions came in response to their efforts to diversify the school district’s leadership team, which they contend was “100% white.” They note that Everett serves 86% students of color, including nearly two-thirds of whom are identified as Hispanic.

The complaint also singles out Michael McLaughlin, an Everett School Committee member, whom they allege can be “abusive and demeaning” during committee meetings.

Tahiliani and Tsai in 2018 brought a suit against Boston Public Schools, then their employer, alleging gender-based pay inequity, according to the Boston Globe.

The pair’s attorneys did not return requests for comment Tuesday. But supporters of the school leaders registered frustration.

“[The complaint] doesn’t surprise me,” said Damain Allen, father to two children in the Everett Public Schools. Allen, who is Black, pointed to the resignation last year of City Councilor Anthony DiPierro after he made racist remarks, according to news reports.

“I’m not ashamed of Everett, or the people who live here — I’m ashamed of the people that we’ve elected,” Allen said.

In a statement sent to WBUR, DeMaria disputed the allegations, saying “Ms. Tahiliani and Ms. Tsai were never subjected to discrimination of any kind by the City and the Mayor and there is simply no evidence to the contrary.”

DeMaria also highlighted his creation of a city department of diversity, equity and inclusion and said he has “champion[ed] the advancement of women on the Mayor’s executive team and throughout City Hall.”

Tahiliani and Tsai seek a jury trial for an unspecified amount of damages. Tahiliani’s contract is due to run through March 2024. Though her contract was not renewed, Tahiliani generally received positive evaluations from the school committee, and received the statewide President’s Award from the Mass. Association of School Superintendents last year.

At least one of the claims in her complaint is backed with public data: that while Everett reliably met or exceeded the state-required level of net school spending between 2008 and 2020, the district fell short of that threshold in the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years while Tahiliani was superintendent.

The city council oversees the district’s budget, and DeMaria has held the office of mayor since 2007.

Tahiliani came to Everett from the Boston Public Schools in 2020. She was a bilingual educator selected to lead a multilingual district. One school committee member, in 2019, described Tahiliani’s task as “regime change.”

She assumed the role after the 30-year reign of Frederick Foresteire ended with his resignation and eventual indictment for sexual assault and harassment. Foresteire was convicted of indecent assault and battery, and pleaded guilty to two similar charges, in February.

Tahiliani’s situation resembles other recent incidents across greater Boston, in which superintendents of color are brought in as promising change agents, only to run afoul of their municipalities’ existing power structures.

Victoria Greer made similar charges of discrimination in Sharon in 2020, and Omar Easy — an Everett native — filed his own discrimination complaint last month with MCAD after being placed on administrative leave by the Wayland school committee.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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