Open the books, meetings of Partnership for Connecticut

The Partnership for Connecticut, a noble undertaking intended to combine philanthropic donations with a state investment to assist students in underperforming schools, will hold its first meeting next Friday in New Haven. Students in New London and Norwich could one day be beneficiaries of this effort.

Unfortunately, it begins under a cloud of suspicion, seeded, it appears, by the fears of its altruistic creators.

This public-private collaboration was announced in April when hedge fund multi-billionaire Ray Dalio and his wife, Barbara, joined Gov. Ned Lamont in revealing Dalio Philanthropies would donate $100 million over five years in an effort to lift children out of the cycle of poverty by providing them the means, in some fashion, to improve their academic performance.

But what are those means? How best to give students from low-income demographic groups the best chance at succeeding academically remains a subject of much debate. If Dalio Philanthropies was using only its own money as a nonprofit group, it would have every right to privately meet with whoever it wanted and invest in the plan it saw fit, free of the public weighing in with opinions.

However, legislation passed earlier this year commits $100 million in state matching funds, also expended over five years, in this effort. Attempts are also being made to find another $100 million in private donations.

With that amount of state money invested, the public has a right to assess the documents and hear the discussions about how to improve academic performance, the pros and the cons.

In other words, the Partnership for Connecticut’s meetings and records should be subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

But in response to the desire of Dalio Philanthropies, the governor and legislature framed the legislation to designate the Partnership for Connecticut as a nonprofit exempt from disclosure rules. This was a mistake. The decision should be reversed by the legislature as a condition to expending the matching funds.

The extent to which Dalio Philanthropies would like to control information was evident in its reaction to an opinion issued by Attorney General William Tong.

Under the legislation, the Partnership’s governing board will consist of the governor, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, and seven private citizens.

In response to a query from Klarides, Tong opined that those elected officials will be subject to the FOI law, meaning that if requested they would have to provide any materials in their possession concerning the works of the Partnership, if those materials were not otherwise exempt under the law.

In response — or maybe it was a big coincidence — Dalio Philanthropies suggested creation of a five-member Executive Committee, excluding those state-elected officials, that would oversee most of the activities. The legislative leaders rightfully balked, and the proposal now seems unlikely to be adopted.

Coming from the private sector, the Dalios would just as soon keep internal debates private and control what information is released. Disclosure is messy. The public can disagree, the press can question, special interests align or undermine.

But keeping information closed has deeper pitfalls. It can breed suspicions, concerns that special interests are being served and harden skepticism into cynicism. Opening ideas and proposals to a wider audience can test them in a way that cannot happen in a small group.

The FOI law has reasonable exemptions — for preliminary drafts, records pertaining to legal strategies, and information tied to collective bargaining, for example.

That matching $100 million is coming from the public. It should not be shut out of this undertaking.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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