Education partnership keeps most deliberations behind closed doors

Gov. Ned Lamont and Barbara Dalio at the first meeting of the Partnership for Connecticut

After enduring months of questions about transparency, the public-private partnership formed to assist struggling Connecticut schools held two-thirds of its inaugural meeting in New Haven behind closed doors.

The Partnership for Connecticut, a venture between the state and hedge fund giant Ray Dalio’s philanthropic group, has been a source of controversy since early June when the legislature agreed — at the request of the Dalio Philanthropies and Gov. Ned Lamont — to exempt the partnership from state disclosure and ethics laws.

While editorial boards across the state, the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and an advocacy group for students’ parents have protested the secrecy, Lamont and the head of Dalio Philanthropies both insisted Friday they would build support and keep parents informed while transforming Connecticut’s schools for the better.

“We have a special responsibility … to give people confidence,” Lamont, one of 12 members on the partnership’s governing board, told the panel during its first meeting at the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology.

“I think you’re going to see as this process unfolds that we’re very thorough in explaining exactly why we made the investments that we did in these kids,” Lamont added after the meeting closed. “You’ll know exactly why we voted and why we did what we did.”

The partnership’s business Friday included beginning its search for a new CEO to run the program, and adopting an initial budget.

The partnership plans to invest between $200 million and $300 million over the next five years in internships, after-school programs, and various other initiatives in select, low-performing districts to help more students graduate high school. The state and Dalio Philanthropies are each putting in $100 million; the partnership hopes to raise an additional $100 million from private donors.

Dalio’s wife, Barbara, who leads Dalio Philanthropies, also was confident parents of school children will be kept informed and involved throughout the process.

“Every expenditure is going to be public,” she said. “We have a website. … Every donation is public. Everything will be right there.”

The Dalios, who have won praise from state and local education leaders for previous initiatives to assist at-risk students in East Hartford, Meriden, New Haven and Hartford, proposed this new partnership back in April.

Dalio Philanthropies initially announced the partnership would meet privately, sparking objections from the two Republican legislators named to the governing board — House Minority Leader Themis Klarides of Derby and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano of North Haven.

The CT Parents Union, a Meriden-based group advocating for the rights of parents of school children, also objected and threatening to protest the partnership’s first meeting unless all deliberations were opened to the public.

Kathleen Megan :: CT Mirror

Gwen Samuel, President of the CT Parents Union

Gwen Samuel, president of the parents union, said the access she received Friday was far too little.

The meeting, which began at 8:15 a.m., began in open session for 33 minutes. The board elected its slate of officers, naming Erik Clemons, founding president and CEO of the center, as its chairman and Barbara Dalio as vice chairwoman.

But after opening statements from members and a pledge to support six core values — inclusiveness, integrity, commitment, empathy, character and collaboration — the board went behind closed doors for one hour and 45 minutes to discuss partnership operations and the search for a chief executive to run the program.

Afterward the board returned for a half hour, adopting amendments to bylaws, an interim budget and other policies with minimal discussion.

“They have no right to dismiss the taxpayers and parents like that,” Samuel said. “It took me 32 minutes to get here for a 33-minute meeting.”

Samuel said parents should be free to watch the members’ deliberations — and not just to receive an edited explanation of their actions afterward.

“In a free society, you don’t impress your decisions on the people,” she said.

Erik Clemons, chairman of the Partnership for Connecticut

Samuel argues that even if some of the money wasn’t from taxpayers — and it is — the partnership’s business should still be conducted in the open because the money is being spent in Connecticut public schools.

“At the point you enter a public institution, the rules apply,” she said.

Aresimowicz defended the unconventional rules surrounding the partnership on two grounds.

Most of the private discussions, such as a personnel search, would have qualified for an executive session under the same rules that local boards of education must follow, he said.

More importantly, the speaker added, Connecticut has failed to sufficiently support too many of its poor urban schools for decades. And if the partnership is going to solve this intractable problem, he added, it may require some candid discussions that officials are reluctant to have in front of reporters.

The partnership originally planned to have all its meetings in private. Friday’s open portions of the meeting were offered as a compromise. And Lamont and Barbara Dalio both said they expect future meetings also would feature portions that are open to the public.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin

“I’ve been up at the Capitol for 16 years,” Aresimowicz said, adding that too often “the deliberations you see in public are nothing more than pandering to people’s bases. This issue has been troubling the state of Connecticut for almost 50 years. It’s about time we have honest discussions, free of political consequences.”

Klarides, who has argued from the start that all partnership proceedings should be public, agreed to participate in Friday’s closed session “with reservations” but made no promises to do so at future meetings.

Fasano, who also has expressed some concerns about discussing too many issues in private, insisted that the interim budget be discussed in public session, which it was.

The public is expected to have some access to partnership proceedings through its documents.

Attorney General William Tong, upon request from Klarides, issued a formal opinion in early August that held the five elected state officials on the partnership’s governing board remain subject to the Freedom of Information Act. 

If asked to provide documents related to partnership business, Tong said, those elected officials must disclose them.

The partnership voluntarily released supporting documentation given to governing board members at Friday’s meeting.

The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information — which is comprised of news organizations, legal nonprofits, and advocates — called on Friday for the board’s elected officials to “decline to ever participate in secretive, closed-door meetings until the Partnership is bound by state Freedom of Information laws.”

“This is not simply a question of complying with the letter of our FOI statutes that require open meetings and public access to decision-making,” said Mike Savino, president of CCFOI. “It begs the question of why our elected leaders and this private foundation believe they need to do business in secret to advance education reform.”

The council also said Lamont and legislative leaders “should commit, as of today, to propose legislation in 2020 to make the Partnership comply with all our FOI statutes.”

Friday’s meeting was broadcast live on The Connecticut Network, a cable government-access channel.

Keith M. Phaneuf: @https://twitter.com/CTMirrorKeith Keith, with Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, won first prize in investigative reporting from the Education Writers Association in 2012 for a series of stories on the Board of Regents for Higher Education. The former State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, Keith has spent most of 24 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut's transportation and social services networks. A former contributing writer to The New York Times, Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.