It was a grim moment late on the morning of May 19, when Gov. Ned Lamont and Dalio Philanthropies declared the demise of the partnership they had formed a year earlier with high hopes of helping troubled youths in Connecticut’s cities.
Months of bickering over the Partnership for Connecticut operating outside the state’s open-government and ethics laws proved too weighty. Everyone retreated from this innovative concept — government and private donors working together on targeted projects to keep young people engaged.
Everyone, that is, except Barbara Dalio and the troubled cities and towns of Connecticut.
Within minutes after Lamont’s news conference at the state Capitol, Joe DeLong, executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, called a representative of Dalio Philanthropies.
“Please let Barbara and the other folks at Dalio know that I’m sorry this fell apart the way it did,” DeLong recalled saying to the representative. “I’m happy to help any way I can.”
Inside the hour, a tweet came from the mayor of a Connecticut city: “Shame about the partnership. Would love to work with the Dalios,” the tweet opened. After some specifics, it concluded, “We are way overcrowded and would love to put together a local public-private partnership that actually makes a profound impact for our children.”
So it was that grieving over dashed dreams by the Dalios — Greenwich billionaires Barbara and Ray, he the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund and she the head of Dalio Education within the philanthropy — lasted a nanosecond.
“I was very sad,” Barbara Dalio said Thursday — three days after she and DeLong rolled out the framework for a city-by-city, town-by-town effort to bring high-speed internet connectivity to all households with students. “And of course when you’re sad you always doubt yourself. ‘What could I have done?’”
But then, this was what she calls “Covid time.” No time to waste. “People didn’t have food and there was not enough child care. And students couldn’t do online learning.”
Formal meetings on Zoom launched within two weeks between DeLong; Barbara Dalio; Dalio Philanthropies staff, chiefly Andrew Ferguson, the education director; and various mayors, first selectmen and other local officials.
“I am of the belief that if we spend too much time on disappointment, not letting go,” said Dalio, the mother of four grown sons, “then you cannot use that energy into the next step, something positive.”
They were off and running, but not with Parnership 2, the sequel. The main goal of connectivity, having suddenly morphed from the 20-year-old digital divide to an acute crisis within coronavirus, was more focused than the broad ideals of the state partnership.
Connectivity grew out of the partnership’s one accomplishment: buying and distributing 60,000 laptops for high school students in poorly performing high schools, from low-income homes. The Dalios picked up the tab for that coronavirus-era effort. It was underway when the partnership dissolved and is now just about done.
This time, there would be no overall dollar figures to replace the partnership’s commitments of $100 million from the Dalios and $100 million from the state over five years. That day in May, the Dalios said they’d maintain their commitment but Barbara Dalio isn’t putting a number on it now.
And the biggest difference: This time, there would be no legal entities formed. Rather, it’s the philanthropy helping cities and towns with money and organization, working out custom-designed ideas. That means no CEO to be hired and, in a culminating crisis at the partnership, placed on administrative leave under murky circumstances weeks later.
On Wednesday, the first of what should be many municipalities made its splashy debut under the new arrangement. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin stood at the steps of a community center in the North End and said the capital city would become one of the first in the nation to offer universal, high-speed internet connection for everyone.
That means everyone, at a download speed still not entirely clear, through a network of 800 to 1,000 WiFi-like nodes throughout the city. It will be installed at a cost of $3.8 million over the next year, mostly financed through Dalio Philanthropies and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
Then of course, the charities may help the city maintain the system.
“We have known for years that there are so many kids in our community who struggle with the homework gap, who have to set up in a McDonald’s after school so they can access the internet to get their homework done,” Bronin said. “And over the last few months we have seen just how devastating that digital divide can be and just how critical high quality internet access is.”
It’s a basic need.
The cost of internet service has come down thanks to the twin miracles of technology development and competition in the same American way that helped the Dalios amass unfathomable wealth through Bridgewater Associates, in Westport. Despite that, universal access has never fulfilled the promises of the ‘90s, when the Telecom Reform Act was supposed to make it happen — and failed.
“Covid has thrown a spotlight on the different issues that were going on in the country and connectivity was one of those,” Barbara Dalio said.
As it happened, the day after the Dalio-CCM announcement, Lamont unveiled the state’s $43.5 million effort to — drum roll please — “close the digital divide for Connecticut students.” So, the other half of the ill-fated partnership is also picking itself up.
This may seem a duplication of efforts, but with some exceptions the two should complement each other. In the state’s plan, Connecticut will contract right now with internet providers for bulk buying of service for the coming year, and will build some hot spots.
The state will also buy 50,000 more laptops for students who need them.
The Dalio-municipalities efforts will mostly take a longer term view, as in Hartford.
Each project will be different, and some may not involve cities and towns at all, but rather ways to help educators — a continuation of Dalio Education’s 12 years of work in Connecticut, supporting numerous programs.
In their separate announcements this week, the state and Dalio Philanthropies barely mentioned each other, if at all. But the governor’s office speaks well of the Dalios’ new project and Barbara Dalio makes the point that more effort from more sources is what it will take to close the gap.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton was among the early city leaders to reach out to the Dalios after the partnership meltdown. He hopes his city wins a support for his idea, long in the making: A city-wide deal with an internet service provider to deliver high-speed connections to all 55,000 households at a targeted negotiated price of $15 a month.
This will require planning and the setup of a “Danbury Internet Fund, along with expertise and some technology upgrades. The Hartford model, with a signal coming through the streets directly, wouldn’t work in Danbury, Boughton said.
“We’ve got 44 square miles of rural, suburban and urban terrain.”
Boughton hopes for a grant of $50,000 from Dalio Philanthropies to plan the fund. “I’ve been an admirer of what they’re doing,” he said.
Boughton had approached he charity with an open-ended request that they work together on city problems. “They came back and said ‘We’re really interested in connectivity.’ I said ‘Wow, I have a plan.’
That’s a big part of the concept, Ferguson and Dalio explained — to work with towns that have people and ideas ready to go. And, to work with cities in a way that solves multiple problems.
“The way we operate, is that we try to be holistic,” Dalio said. “Even though students are our focal point, the students and the parents are connected so if the parents cannot access the jobs and the health information.”
DeLong, at CCM, describes it as a decidedly decentralized effort, in contrast to the state partnership. “What we’re all trying to do is build a movement, get some good progress going and maybe with that inspire some others,” he said.
As for Ray and Barbara Dalio, he said, “Their heart is into this. It’s not just their wallet. It’s been Barbara’s passion.”
By now it’s clear this isn’t a second-guessing crowd. We’ll never know whether what might have been would be better than what we now have. In hindsight, this seems a better fit in a small state that packs in a lot of regional and political squabbling.
“I have to say it’s really satisfying to see all the mayors involved,” Dalio said. “So maybe the work will be faster because it’s a little bit slower when working with the state....There’s not all of these layers and approvals that have to go on that are time consuming.”
Not as many, at least. The cities will still prove a challenge.