A public-private partnership dedicated to helping at-risk students was a noble idea. But when a mix of elected officials and private volunteers adhere to different transparency rules, the venture is bound to strike shoals.
On Tuesday Gov. Ned Lamont and philanthropist Barbara Dalio announced the dissolution of the Partnership for Connecticut after just over a year. Dalio cited “political fighting” as a reason.
The suddenness was a surprise, but the eventuality was not.
From the start of the partnership — formed with a generous $100 million contribution from Barbara and her husband Ray Dalio, to have been matched with $100 million in private contributions and $100 million in state funds over five years — we urged complete transparency. The General Assembly gave the group exemption from Freedom of Information rules, never a good move; state leaders on the panel, however, had to follow FOI because they are public officials.
Credit goes to state House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, a member of the panel, for insisting on transparency. Democrats should have known better than to think they could get by without it. We repeat: A substantial amount of taxpayers’ money was involved.
The Dalios had upright intentions and, as Lamont noted, conducted monthly meetings with transparency. But the board wanted to avoid FOI at certain times, such as when talking with at-risk youth.
The situation came to a head in recent days when the private members of the board decided to put the chief executive officer, who had been on the job only two months, on leave for reasons not disclosed. The public members of the partnership were not included in the decision.
The news leaked to the media, and the Dalios said any trust within the partnership was broken. The arrangement was not going to work.
Even as the partnership was dissolving, the benefits became tangible — the first of 60,000 free laptops with software were distributed this week for students in under-performing districts. The $24 million purchase happened more quickly than if it had gone through government channels. The timing is critical with schools closed for two months and students without computers for distance learning falling far behind. Access to the internet will be provided, if necessary.
Of that $24 million expense, the Dalios are contributing $20 million and the state only $4 million. The remainder of the state’s $20 million first-year commitment will be returned to the state budget. With the economy in tatters over the pandemic every penny is welcome, though we do not begrudge education spending.
Connecticut is fortunate that the Dalios will continue their philanthropy aimed at keeping at-risk students in school and preparing them for employment, albeit privately. In their $100 million commitment, they also aim to support teachers who’ve been thrust into delivering online learning with little training.
Philanthropy and ideas from the private sector will always be welcome, but schools are fundamentally a public operation and when public funds are involved complete transparency is required.