Connecticut officials with the new public-private partnership to aid at-risk students universally insist they must build public trust in a venture exempt from disclosure rules.
But how far should they peel back the curtain and let the public peer inside? The opinions are all over the place.
At stake is $100 million in taxpayer funds — and public confidence in how that money is spent.
Gov. Ned Lamont and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz are comfortable with rules that allow the Partnership for Connecticut to discuss any matter it wants in private — so long as members vote in public and take time to explain their reasoning afterward.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides is the polar opposite, calling for all proceedings to be open.
Her fellow Republican leader, Sen. Len Fasano, will accept some private discussions, so long as all budgetary matters — including grant awards to local school districts — are vetted publicly.
“We are, in a real sense, sort of making it up as we go along.”
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney
And while Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney hasn’t outlined any firm boundaries yet, he warned Tuesday the venture could flounder without a healthy level of public debate.
“This is all very unprecedented,” Looney said. “We are, in a real sense, sort of making it up as we go along.”
“I think you should be able to do some of the bigger issues in private,” Fasano said, before quickly warning that if the process is too shrouded in mystery “too many people will misconstrue your work in the negative.”
The “work,” at least in a broad sense, is very clear: to help disconnected, disadvantaged students graduate from high school and succeed in college. Advocates say this naturally involves a focus on low-performing districts in Connecticut’s poorest communities.
With $100 million provided by Dalio Philanthropies and $100 million by the state, the panel will funnel roughly $40 million annually for the next five years into mentorships, academic programs and various other initiatives to help struggling students reach their potential.
“We’re going to be making amazing investments in programs created by teachers to help kids who otherwise have been left behind,” Lamont said following last Friday’s initial meeting of the partnership’s governing board.
“Most of the focus is on these disconnected, disadvantaged kids, getting them back and getting them through school and into a great job,” the governor added.
Why might a venture with this laudable goal have to work to win public confidence?
For one thing, $40 million per year, though significant, is nowhere near enough to address all of Connecticut’s educational challenges.
That’s equal to just 2% of the roughly $2 billion the state spends every year on general operating grants to public school districts.
In other words, partnership officials acknowledge there likely will be some worthy projects proposed by needy school districts that don’t receive grants — simply because funding is limited.
Dalio Philanthropies, which is led by Barbara Dalio and her husband, hedge fund giant Ray Dalio, proposed the radical partnership back in April.
The Dalios have won praise from state and local education leaders for previous, smaller initiatives to assist at-risk students in East Hartford, Meriden, New Haven and Hartford.
When legislators approved this broader outreach program in June, they granted the Dalio’s and Lamont’s request to exempt the partnership from state disclosure and ethics rules.
Supporters of this unorthodox approach said decades-old problems in education — entrenched urban poverty, tremendous inequality in programs, racial isolation — need innovative solutions. And to break those issues down officials must be able to speak candidly, they say, adding this can only be done in private.
“Those discussions are difficult, and I’ve seen them before over my 20-year political career,” Aresimowicz said. “When you do it in [public] you don’t get real. You don’t get to the root of the problem.”
“I think people are going to see we’re going to be making grants that make an enormous difference in kids’ lives. And that will give them confidence.”
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz
Both Aresimowicz and Lamont say if the process produces good results, and if officials take some time afterward to explain their decisions, the public won’t hold the secrecy against them.
“I think people are going to see we’re going to be making grants that make an enormous difference in kids’ lives,” he said. “And that will give them confidence.”
Klarides says this assumption, quite simply, is wrong.
“This needs to be transparent,” Klarides said, adding that she and her fellow House Republicans have insisted as much since the legislature OK’d the disclosure exemption over their objections in June. “It’s not enough to say ‘trust me, we’re doing what’s best for the state.’ People don’t trust you unless they see what you’re doing.”
“This needs to be transparent. It’s not enough to say ‘trust me, we’re doing what’s best for the state.’ People don’t trust you unless they see what you’re doing.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides
Fasano and Looney have taken more of a middle ground approach than House leaders.
Fasano, a North Haven Republican, said some private talks are okay if they are about big picture topics like best solutions or an educational system’s worst problems .
“I think those type of discussions probably would yield a better result if we talked about them in private,” he said.
But when it comes to spending money — half of which comes from taxpayers — these talks need to happen in open session, Fasano said. And this especially is true if the partnership is funding projects proposed in some school districts, and not in others.
“My own tilt on this is we should try to do as much in public as is practical,” Fasano said.
And while private talks might produce new solutions to longstanding, sensitive problems in education, Looney agreed with Fasano that communities will want to understand how limited resources were divided.
“He certainly does have a point,” Looney said. “I would think there would need to be at least some accounting of the particular merits of any grant recipient.”
Looney added it’s imperative that all participants in this venture — state officials, their appointees, and representatives of Dalio Philanthropies — try to reach middle ground.
“My own tilt on this is we should try to do as much in public as is practical.”
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano
Because the entire effort hinges on an unprecedented contribution from one private entity, any effort to change the partnership’s bylaws must undergo a complex process.
Although the principal overseer is a 13-member Board of Directors, there is a six-member subcommittee that also must approve any such rule change.
And two of those members, Barbara Dalio and Lamont, can block any change by themselves. Similarly, the four legislators on this subcommittee — Aresimowicz, Klarides, Looney and Fasano — also can block any change so long as three of the four want to do so.
Barbara Dalio said this structure ensures all parties retain some control over the most important decisions and “it helps to promote bipartisan and collaborative decision-making, which are hallmarks of the partnership.”
“It is too soon to speculate about any changes to the bylaws or board structure,” Dalio added. “Right now, we’re focused on getting the partnership started and making a positive difference with and for young people who are disengaged or disconnected from high school and opportunity.”