Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie

NEW HAVEN, CT — The decision to exempt it from Connecticut’s open records law made the Connecticut Partnership controversial, but board members said that the mission to fund programs for disconnected, disengaged youth made it worth it for them.

The Connecticut Partnership is a public-private partnership between the state of Connecticut and Dalio Philanthropies, which gave $100 million to the state to fund these programs. The group will also be in charge of the initial $20 million in state funds.

Erik Clemons, who is the CEO of the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology, Sheena Graham, the 2019 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, and Barbara Dalio came up with a set of values for the board in anticipation of this first board meeting. Those values included inclusiveness, integrity, commitment, empathy, character and collaboration.

Transparency was not one of the values.

The board went into executive session an hour after the meeting began and stayed there longer than they met in public.

Before the executive session, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, expressed her concern about the lack of transparency, but that didn’t stop the group from spending most of the morning behind closed doors.

Senator Len Fasano, R-North Haven, made a motion to move the budget planning back into public view. The board agreed, but decided to move their discussions about the search for a president and CEO, and initial operations, behind closed doors.

The Dalio Family Fund, according to documents, has already approved $425,000 in initial grant funding for the Partnership and has issued the funds to the Partnership to support initial operations.

This summer the Partnership sought a commitment from its board members to approve a resolution that says the “board meetings, committees, and working sessions will operate in closed session, but the Partnership will communicate openly to the public about decisions that have been made and the logic behind them.”

In creating the Partnership, the General Assembly exempted the group from Freedom of Information and open meeting laws.

The bylaws adopted by the Partnership board Friday said the board will “endeavor to hold at least three additional regularly scheduled meetings annually,” but only two directors need to be present for any special meeting. The bylaws also allow the board to take action without a meeting as long as the members consent to it in writing.

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Gov. Ned Lamont, a member of the board, said they are going to do whatever it takes to give the public a high degree of confidence they are doing what’s best for the youth.

But Gwen Samuel, executive director of the Connecticut Parent Union, called the whole thing “problematic.”

She said they are pretending to offer transparency, while nothing about an executive session is transparent. She said it’s also annoying that they didn’t save the executive session until the end of the meeting, instead making interested parties wait while business was conducted behind closed doors.

“It means they didn’t have enough respect for our time,” Samuel said. “I don’t even have words for it.”

Samuel also questioned the decision to hire an executive search firm to find a CEO. According to the materials on a table at the back of the room, the Partnership hired LPA Search Partners for $69,300 to find a president and CEO who will work with the board of directors and lead the organization.

Four different search firms submitted proposals and LPA Search Partners was chosen by four board members before the Partnership held its first meeting, Andrew Ferguson, the board administrator, explained during the public portion of the meeting.

Klarides objected to the $247,500 salary that was proposed as a benchmark salary for hiring a CEO.

After the meeting House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, defended the board’s ability to hold most of its meeting in an executive session.

“Things that need to be done in public will be,” he said.  “[I]t’s just the discussions” that will be private.

The reason they can be private is because of Dalio’s private donation.

What would be the harm of holding those discussions in public?

“I’ve been at the state Capitol for 16 years and the deliberations you see in public is nothing more than pandering to people’s base,” Aresimowicz said. “If this is going to work and it’s going to be different, there has to be a level of trust amongst the board in those discussions about how we get to the decision. When the decision is reached, it’s going to be public and we will explain why.”

Aresimowicz said the media is making “way more out of the transparency issue than it is.”

“We’re not hiding anything,” he said.

If that’s true then Michael Savino, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said each state elected official on the board should decline to ever participate in secretive, closed-door meetings until the Partnership is bound by state Freedom of Information laws.

“While the goal of helping challenged public schools is laudable, we believe the Partnership – using $100 million in public funds – needs to do business in the open,” Savino said.“Its membership, which includes several elected officials, will leverage $100 million in public funds to reform public education.”

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Jan Hochadel, president of AFT-CT, said it’s slightly ironic that she’s a member of the board because she was just in Washington, D.C., speaking at the World Bank Convention against public-private partnerships.

“The partnerships that we fight against are those that are philanthropists who say, ‘We know education is broken and we know what to do to fix it,’” Hochadel said.

She said Dalio Philanthropies is different. She said Barbara Dalio has worked with Norwallk and Meriden and asked the teachers what they believe will work and what they want to see.

“It’s not on high. It’s not scripted. It is the work of the teachers,” Hochadel said.

Dalio said the students in Norwalk whom she’s worked with really touched her heart and made her want to do more of this work. 

Clemons said he’s interested in chairing the board because of his personal experience being a disengaged and disconnected youth. Clemons said he went to four different high schools and his brother was shot before he could receive a high school diploma.

“A lot of what we had to fight through was the result of poverty,” Clemons said.

The money the Partnership will eventually give out will benefit youth ages 14-24 who are showing signs of disengagement and disconnectgion from high school, the workforce, or the community by targeting under-resourced communities over the next five years.