A $100 million donation to Connecticutâ€™s struggling schools from billionaire Ray Dalioâ€™s foundation seems like too good a deal to pass up.
But it requires a $100 million contribution from state taxpayers, and that means the public should have a transparent view into how its money is being spent.
The legislation that creates the panel that oversees the project, though, explicitly states that it will not be a public agency, potentially exempting it from the Freedom of Information Act and ethics rules. That raises serious concerns.
The legislation is baked into the massive budget bill that could soon be on Gov. Ned Lamontâ€™s desk. It establishes a nonprofit corporation called the â€śPartnership for Connecticut, Inc.â€ť The bill â€śspecifies that the corporation must not be construed (1) as a department, institution, public agency, public instrumentality, or political subdivision or (2) to perform any governmental function.â€ť
And while the panel initially overseeing the fund includes top state officials, members appointed by the governor and by Mr. Dalioâ€™s foundation, they are required only to issue semiannual reports on its workings, â€śin form and substance agreed to by the corporation and governor but (the bill) does not otherwise specify any required contents or deadlines.â€ť
That means the people with control over $100 million in state funds would have no accountability to the public. Disclosure of the panelâ€™s operations will be at the discretion of those who hold the purse strings. Clearly, there is a public interest in transparency. If the Dalios wanted to create a fund with only their own money, then of course they could handle it however they wished. But if they are bringing state money into the process, the public gets to see how that money is spent. A gift to the public good shouldnâ€™t come with conditions that exclude the public from the conversation.
The plan itself - to help struggling districts and connect young adults with jobs - looks good on its face. The Dalioâ€™s foundation is already active in a number of Connecticut school districts. Meridenâ€™s superintendent Mark Begnini recently said that â€śBarbara (Dalio) has visited our districts, held round tables with students, heard from our staff . She doesnâ€™t just invest in public education. Her heart is in this work. She cares about whatâ€™s happening in this district. She wants success as much as we do.â€ť
But in other places, the value of philanthropic contributions to schools has been questioned. Some have wondered whether investments in schools from Facebookâ€™s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoftâ€™s Bill Gates have been effective.
The issue of transparency, though, is critical. How are taxpayers to be assured, for example, that their money isnâ€™t being funneled to politically connected groups, or to businesses that have other oars in state waters, or in exchange for other favors down the road?
Deputy House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, put a fine point on the problem during a break in the debate on the bill. â€śSince when are tax dollars not subject to complete transparency?â€ť he asked. â€śThe governor has created a diversion of taxpayer revenues into a corporation that can spend money in the shadows. . I would be shocked if any legislative leader would honor this cloak of secrecy.â€ť
Heâ€™s right. In principle, partnering with a philanthropic interest to help solve the stateâ€™s workforce and education problems is a great idea. But the devil is in the details, and those details must be open to the public.