The president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information is blasting an embattled Hartford charter school group for refusing to release information to the public about its taxpayer-funded operations – adding that the Malloy administration should push the group harder to obey FOI laws.
Officials in the Malloy administration have said that they are not sure how the FOI laws apply to charter school organizations and that they need to study the issue further. But Jim Smith, head of the nonprofit group that advocates for laws protecting the public's right to know, is unequivocal in his belief that the laws do apply.
"Charter schools are certainly one solution of the problems in education in Connecticut and in America. There are things in education that are properly private, like academic records," Smith said. "But if the charter schools [receive]... public moneys, then charter school officials who refuse to divulge information are breaking the Freedom of Information law."
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Smith was referring, in an interview Friday, to the charter management group FUSE, as well as the Jumoke Academy charter schools in Hartford that FUSE managed.
Both organizations have failed to provide information requested by The Courant during recent weeks of turmoil including the resignation of FUSE's CEO, Michael Sharpe, after it was disclosed that he served time in federal prison and falsely claimed to have a doctorate. The state has provided $53 million to the charter operation since the 1997 founding of Jumoke, and the formation of FUSE as its management unit in more recent years.
The Courant's requests for information from Jumoke and FUSE would typically have been complied with by a normal superintendent of schools' office in a town or a city under the section of state statutes known as the Freedom of Information Act.
For example, if a superintendent of schools resigned after it was revealed that he faked his doctorate, his office would be required under law to disclose his salary and other information such as whether he would receive a pension, and in what amount.
But when The Courant sought that same information from FUSE about Sharpe, for example, the organization refused to answer, saying it is not covered by the FOI Act because it is a private, non-profit group. State law says that charter schools are, in effect, public agencies and must provide information upon request under the FOI Act.
State law isn't as specific with regard to charter school management groups such as FUSE, but the co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, Andrew Fleischmann, said court decisions make it clear that FUSE should be providing information to the public under current laws. Just to make sure that is clear, his co-chair on the committee says the legislature should close all loopholes next year because of what FUSE has been doing..
Smith, the FOI council president, on Friday said he agreed. "There is enough case law, with enough specificity as to what is public and what is private in education, that these guys simply are ignoring legitimate questions that the public has the right to know about," he said.
FUSE in recent days has reiterated its opposition to disclosing the information requested. Its acting co-CEO, Heidi Hamilton, a lawyer, wrote The Courant Thursday and said that "we are not a public agency. Moreover, the records you have requested are not public records or files…Lastly, we have been advised by counsel that we are under no duty to respond to your request."
In an interview during the week, Hamilton said The Courant's contention that the information is public is "really not relevant to me… I have to concentrate on running a business."
Jumoke, for its part, has not claimed immunity from the FOI as FUSE has, but it still has yet to comply with any FOI requests from the Courant – such as a list of employees and information about a murky lease arrangement with Sharpe, who's been living in a second-floor apartment in a Jumoke-owned building on Asylum Avenue in Hartford. Jumoke also refuses comment on any rental arrangement there might be for a woman who lives on the third floor of the building.
When taxpayers are footing the bill, even a non-profit organization must account to the public for its operations, Smith said.
"If there are legitimate questions about the operations of charter schools… and they have received…millions of tax dollars, then the governor has to ensure that these questions are answered publicly," Smith said. He added that statements insisting on the charter schools' compliance with FOI laws should be made by both Malloy and his appointed education commissioner, Stefan Pryor. Pryor comes from a charter school background; he co-founded Amistad Academy, a charter school in New Haven, and served on the board of the Achievement First network of schools that includes Amistad.
"Why wouldn't they want this information available to the public? They should insist on it publicly. The governor should tell these charter schools to release the information," Smith said, adding that Pryor should, too.
Pryor said this past week that his department has embarked on a "comprehensive analysis" of its oversight of charter schools – including the question of their obligations under the FOI Act.
When asked recently whether Pryor thinks charter school groups should have the same obligations as regular public schools under the FOI Act, education department spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly said: "Transparency is a vital component of public accountability. During the course of our review of laws and policies related to charter schools, we will examine this question further so that all organizations are adhering to the highest standards."
On Friday, Malloy's director of communications, Andrew Doba, said, when asked about Smith's comments: "The administration supports the [education] department's review of charter schools, including their review of additional transparency measures."
He did not respond Smith's statement that there may be some significance to the fact that a politically connected lawyer and friend of Malloy's has entered the picture: James A. Wade of the prominent firm Robinson+Cole in Hartford. Both Jumoke and FUSE have begun consulting Wade. Hamilton cc'd Wade on her FOI response Thursday, and members of Jumoke's governing board mentioned at a Thursday evening meeting that they had been seeking Wade's advice (on matters they didn't disclose).
Wade is a major fundraiser for Democrats, and Malloy has repeatedly served as the speaker and main draw at fundraising events staged by Wade's political action committee, called Prosperity For Connecticut. One of those fundraisers in 2013 was hosted by a major figure in the Connecticut charter school movement, Greenwich businessman Jonathan Sackler. Sackler's family members, and the company where he is a director, have accounted for about $200,000 in donations in 2013 and 2014 to state and federal Democratic committees that can help Malloy's November re-election campaign.
Smith said it's "an utterly fair question" to ask whether Wade's involvement could affect the Malloy administration's handling of the charter schools issue. "Why else would they hire Jim Wade? These guys [FUSE and Jumoke] obviously have some savvy," Smith said. "It's almost like cronyism."
Wade did not return a Courant phone message Friday.
Jumoke announced late Friday that it is severing ties with FUSE and would now operate its three charter schools in Hartford without the management group. FUSE still has an agreement to operate a charter school in Louisiana. Details of how the new arrangement would work were not released.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at email@example.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.