This story was first published in the New Haven Independent.
After talking up how much they value “inclusiveness” and “collaboration,” the leaders of a state-backed venture retreated behind closed doors to discuss how they plan to save struggling students in Connecticut’s poorest high schools.
That shut-out occurred on Friday morning in New Haven during an organizational meeting of the Partnership for Connecticut, a controversial $300 million public-private partnership aimed at helping more students finish high school and find a job.
The controversial meeting — which sparked complaints from parents and others hoping to watch the new group deliberate over the use of public dollars for public schools — occurred in the offices of the Connecticut Center for Arts & technology (ConnCAT) at Science Park.
Its work over the next five years will be funded by $100 million from state government, $100 million from the hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio’s foundation, and $100 million from other private donors.
When the Dalios’ gift was announced in April, Gov. Ned Lamont described it as the largest in the state’s history.
During a brief hour in public, the board’s 13 directors spoke about what they hope the Partnership for Connecticut can accomplish, what they value, and how a venture backed by government grants and donor dollars can work effectively.
New Haven’s Martin Looney, the Democratic president pro tempore in the State Senate, said that the partnership is necessary because the state hadn’t figured out how to close glaring achievement gaps across school districts.
“I was the child of immigrant parents who didn’t have a formal education, and they were committed to my education from the time I was born. They realized that was the way for me to succeed. This is what we need to find a way to replicate for all of our students, especially those in the districts in the state where the achievement gap is worse,” Looney said. “Various initiatives have been attempted or planned or tried or thought about, and that has not made a sufficient impact on that problem over the years. That’s why we need to make use of the opportunity presented here and the resources being committed to this.”
Jan Hochadel, the president of the statewide teachers union, said that she normally opposes public-private partnership, but she argued that the Partnership for Connecticut would be different. She said it will rely on teachers to come up with ideas.
“Here’s the difference: The partnerships that we fight against are those that say, ‘We know that education is broken and we know how to fix it. I’m going to give you this money and you’re going to do it exactly the way I want to do it,’” Hochadel said. “That’s not the way that we should be helping the poor and the disenfranchised. What Barbara [Dalio] does instead is she goes to these schools — I know because she’s worked in Norwalk and Meriden with our teachers — and she says, ‘What are the issues that you see? How can you help those children?’ Those are the ideas she wants to fund.”
Some parents listening in the audience wondered whether that was true.
Jill Kelly, a mom at Engineering & Science University Magnet School, said she worries that the partnership will adopt Dalio’s principles, essentially reducing students to their data. “He has the privilege and power to test it on our kids,” she said.
The board includes five white men and three white women, two black men and one black woman, and one Hispanic woman.
Together, they unanimously picked Erik Clemons, the CEO of Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology, as the board’s chair. After he was picked, Clemons said the partnership’s mission is personal to him, after seeing his younger brother, who never finished high school, was killed before he turned 18 years old.
“Not too many people throughout the state has really paid attention to this chronic issue of disengaged and disconnected youth and, quite frankly, poverty in itself,” he said.
The board also selected Barbara Dalio, the director of Dalio Philanthropies, as vice-chair; Garrett Moran, the former Year Up president, as treasurer; and Yvette Meléndez, a retired healthcare policy executive, as secretary.
With that slate, the board’s executive committee kept out any of the five lawmakers whom Attorney General William Tong said are legally bound to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, meaning they’d need to release any of the partnership documents that arrive in their office.
The board also selected Andrew Ferguson, a senior staffer at Dalio Philanthropies, to serve as as the partnership’s “senior advisor” without compensation. An accompanying resolution said his appointment to the partnership was necessary to maintain the confidentiality of their attorney-client communications.
Then, Clemons asked for the board to take the rest of the meeting behind closed doors. He said it needed to go into “executive session” to secretly discuss the search for a chief operating officer and the foundation’s initial operations.
Len Fasano, the Republican minority leader in the State Senate, asked that the budget be discussed in public.
A draft for this calendar year included spending $69,300 on LPA Search Partners for the CEO search firm and $20,625 for the CEO’s first paycheck on what’s expected to be a $247,500 annual salary, along with $100,000 to contract with external accounting and law firms.
Themis Klarides, the Republican minority leader in the House of Representatives, said she objected to the lack of transparency, but she said she’d go along with the rest of the board to allow the partnership to begin its work.
“I want to state on the record my concerns with operating in this partnership not in the full public view. I’ve made my feelings clear about my intention to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and my reservations about the transparency of this,” Klarides said. “I would ask that, going forward, this board may consider the items that we do take up in executive session in the future” in public.
To make sure no one could even peer inside, the board’s directors covered up the classroom door on the second floor of ConnCAT’s building with two taped-up poster sheets. Three men in suits stood across the hallway and asked reporters what they were looking for.
Throughout the hour-and-a-half executive session, parents walked in to the emptied-out conference room, wondering what was going on.
“It’s an open secret meeting?” wondered Sylvester Salcedo, a dad at John C. Daniels School of International Communication. “Where’s the money for our two-thirds of third graders who are scoring below the minimum expected performance levels? Where is the money?”
Others fumed. Gwen Samuel, a Meriden mom who leads the Connecticut Parents Union, arrived just as the board members walked out. She said she felt “offended” by the way the directors had blocked them from participating.
“Many of us might be poor, but we also might have something to contribute, if you only create the space for it,” Samuel said. “We’re making sure that you protect the rights of children. They don’t want to be part of any social experiment. They want us, as adults, to be responsive to ensure they get a fair chance of life, and that doesn’t need to be done in secret.”
“Here’s an opportunity to make a true public and private partnership,” she added. “FOI was put in place to ensure accountability and transparency. So who would want to circumvent it? That’s where the fear comes in. Who would wants to do things in secret with children?”
When the board’s directors came back, they said they hadn’t taken any votes in private. They approved some revisions to the bylaws, including giving Barbara Dalio, Gov. Lamont and any combination of two state lawmakers effective veto power over major decisions, and set up two search committees.
“Really quickly, in the spirt of transparency,” Clemons said, “we had a really great discussion on transparency.”
Clemons didn’t elaborate further on what he meant.
Asked about the partnership’s lack of transparency after the meeting, Gov. Lamont said he thought that that the board’s directors were on their way to establishing trust.
“You heard our discussion out loud in terms of the bylaws and how we set this up. We went into executive session and we had personnel issues and salary issues that we were talking about,” he said. “I think you’re going to see, as this process unfolds, we’re very thorough in explaining exactly why we made the investments we did in these kids and how that came about.”
Barbara Dalio said every public expenditure and every donation will be posted on the partnership’s website.
Joe Aresimowicz, the Democratic speaker of the state House of Representatives, said that future meetings “will be similar to what you saw here today.” He said that, from his 16 years’ experience in the legislature, public deliberations are ineffective, because they devolve into “nothing more than pandering to people’s base.”
“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. What the ultimate decisions are going to be will be out there,” Aresimowicz said. “What we’re doing here is very different than anything that’s been seen before.”
So, it was transparency all along that had been ailing Connecticut’s public schools? a reporter asked. Has the Freedom of Information Act really been the impediment?
“The flexibility that the public-private partnership offers us is to get at the root of the issues that have troubled the State of Connecticut for years and years and years. It’s about time we try something different,” Arciemowicz said. “Honestly, I think this transparency issue is being made way more than it is. We’re not hiding anything.”
So should local school boards also be allowed to go into executive session whenever they want? a reporter added.
“My feeling is every single vote is going to be in public,” Lamont said. “Every single person will have an opportunity to explain why they support or oppose something, like we’re doing right now.” Asked again to answer the question, Lamont said, “I’m not an expert in the local school board rules.”
But parents who waited around Friday while the board discussed the partnership’s operations in secret said it might also be the biggest giveaway in the state’s history.
“I think it’s theft of public money. This should not exist. [The Dalios] should pay their fair share of taxes, and it should be used to fund our schools directly, not a private project,” said Sarah Miller, a mom at New Haven’s Columbus Family Academy who’s an organizer with the watchdog group NHPS Advocates. “How about we just have librarians and counselors, the things we know work, the things that the suburbs have? We need more money to help kids who have really serious problems. It’s not rocket science.”
School finance experts backed that up, calling the new venture “an unfortunate squandering” of public dollars.
“Connecticut should be focused on providing adequate funding for the state’s highest need districts,” like Bridgeport, Waterbury and New Britain, Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, tweeted. “As in many other states, let’s stop with the reform-y distractions — small-dollar quick fixes — and address the real problems: systemic and egregious funding disparities that fall disproportionately on the state’s high need, and in this case, predominantly Latino children.”
In the state budget, legislators exempted the partnership from state transparency and ethics rules. That has set off a backlash to the deal that has generated newspaper editorials and parent petitions.
After Friday’s meeting, Gov. Lamont asked for everyone to give the partnership a chance to prove itself by making an initial round of grants. But parents asked what they’re hiding in the meantime.