Lawmakers balk at being excluded from decision making in education partnership
A proposal that would dramatically weaken oversight of — and public access to — an initiative that will pump hundreds of millions of public and private funds into Connecticut schools has run afoul of state legislative leaders.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers told the CT Mirror last week that the oversight proposal crafted by representatives of hedge-fund giant Ray Dalio’s philanthropic group has little chance of moving forward, though bipartisan support for the partnership remains strong.
At issue is a five-member Executive Committee that would oversee most activities of the Partnership for Connecticut — an initiative to invest as much as $300 million into low-performing schools over the next five years.
The committee, as proposed by representatives of Dalio Philanthropies, would exclude all of the elected state officials who are subject to Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act.
Under this proposal, “all of the business could be done at the executive board level and the public, who pays millions of dollars for this, can’t get access,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who first raised opposition to the proposal. “And these are not little things at stake.”
Dalio Philanthropies said the group is confident it still can craft a collaborative, transparent public-private partnership to bolster Connecticut’s impoverished school districts.
Ray Dalio and his wife, Barbara, pledged in April to contribute $100 million over the next five years to help Connecticut’s low-performing districts, with the state committing to match the Dalio’s contribution with $100 million in taxpayers’ money. Both sides have agreed, through the partnership, to try to raise another $100 million in contributions from other private donors.
The Dalios already have funded initiatives to assist public school students in East Hartford, Meriden, New Haven and Hartford, earning praise from local education leaders, Lamont and legislators.
But Dalio Philanthropies also asked that the partnership be exempt from state disclosure rules, a request that was granted by Gov. Ned Lamont and the Democrat-controlled legislature.
Though the Dalios and Lamont promised frequent public reports, the partnership would decide which details were disclosed, and most deliberations and discussions of its 13-member governing board would be private.
Things changed, though, on Aug. 7, when Attorney General William Tong issued a formal opinion in response to a query from Klarides.
Tong said that the five elected state officials on the partnership’s governing board — Lamont, Klarides, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, 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.
Fasano said that the executive board proposal, which comes on the heels of the Tong opinion, was a disappointment.
It would have created a five-member subcommittee of the full governing board — with no public officials on it. It also would have empowered that board to execute contracts, select vendors, evaluate the partnership’s CEO and set compensation, and perform any other duties set forth in the partnership charter.
Lamont, who joined the Dalios in proposing the partnership in April, would not serve on the Executive Committee, but two of his designees still would.
“It’s clear to me that the executive board, for all practical purposes, is the operational board the way they tried to set it up,” Fasano said, adding that would have reduced the full Board of Directors — and the legislators serving on it — to “window dressing.”
Fasano added that “it seems to me one of the purposes of this proposal must have been to avoid the AG’s opinion.”
But Dalio Philanthropies responded in a written statement that “We are confident we’re going to come to agreement on the design of the partnership’s operations. We are actively engaged in conversations with board directors about how to shape the partnership. We’re eager to do so collaboratively, transparently, and effectively because every day we don’t advance we are denying high school students and communities the chance to benefit from this unprecedented opportunity.”
The top two Democrats in the legislature, Looney and Aresimowicz, did not question the motives behind the Executive Committee proposal. But both leaders said it would be problematic.
“It seemed to create two separate categories of board members, with the public members not being a part of (the Executive Committee),” Looney said.
Looney added that legislators are responsible for adopting the annual budget — which would include the state’s financial stake in this partnership. Given that all funds would be expended in public schools, legislators need to be closely involved, he said.
“Education is a core responsibility of state government,” Looney added.
Aresimowicz said he believes the matter is a “misunderstanding,” and stems from a desire “to be respectful of the legislators’ time commitments. I don’t think it was a good idea but they were quick to react and to explain.”
But the speaker added that there is a fundamental disagreement between Dalio Philanthropies and legislative leaders on the degree of public access that should be guaranteed.
Dalio representatives proposed a “transparency commitment” policy that would guarantee one public meeting per year. The partnership also would maintain a website and provide various reports, but there there is no guarantee of what types of information it would choose to share.
Klarides and Fasano have called for committee meetings to be open. Aresimowicz said the public should have access to all committee votes and actions regarding expenditure of public funds. Looney did not provide specific examples, but also said some degree of public access is preferable.
Lamont said this week he is comfortable with making all meetings of the partnership’s Board of Directors open to the public, but is more concerned about getting the initiative up and running.
“I’m personally comfortable with anything that gets us off the dime and moving again,” the governor said.
I just want to get this going,” Lamont added. “We can talk about transparency or we can start making this money available so we can have after-school and pre-school programs. I was hoping to get something going in time for the school year. Let’s see if we can get something going in time for the second semester.”
Dalio Philanthropies has continued to press for closed meetings, saying that private discussions are necessary to solve Connecticut’s toughest educational challenges. The Lamont administration has supported this request.
Meanwhile, a grassroots group advocating for greater parental access to local school district information is threatening to protest outside the first meeting of the Partnership for Connecticut’s Board of Directors if the gathering isn’t open to the public.
No date has been set yet, but organizers have said they plan to hold an initial meeting this fall.
Gwen Samuel of Meriden, president of the Connecticut Parents Union, already has filed FOI requests for partnership-related documents with Lamont and with the four legislative leaders. Samuel, whose group has about 275 members, said she’s particularly concerned about what student data the partnership might be allowed to access.
“If you’re going to help our classrooms,” she said, “you can’t exclude the guardians of the children from the process.”