Pull back the curtain as top aides in the Malloy administration shape the messages that get fed to the taxpaying public, and you see how much calculation, editing and rewriting happens before a statement is finally issued — and how high up the ladder they go for approval.
There's no better time to do this than during a political crisis, such as the recent one that hit the Hartford-based charter school management group FUSE and the Jumoke Academy it runs. Malloy administration lieutenants scrambled to keep pace with news disclosures about problems that led to the resignation of FUSE's CEO, Michael Sharpe.
When Sharpe quit on Saturday, June 21, after five days of damaging Courant stories, one of the state Department of Education's press aides, James Polites, already had drafted in advance two statements to give to reporters:
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•"If asked, SDE [State Department of Education] response/next steps: Before making determinations on next steps, the state Department of Education will await information from FUSE regarding its leadership, its plans, and on any modifications it may enact to its internal policies. We appreciate the contributions Michael Sharpe and FUSE/Jumoke have made to Connecticut schools. As always, our focus is on moving forward in the best interests of Connecticut's students."
•"If asked, general reaction: We appreciate the contributions Michael Sharpe and FUSE/Jumoke have made to Connecticut schools. Before making determinations on next steps, the state Department of Education will await information from FUSE regarding its leadership, its plans, and on any modifications it may enact to its internal policies. As always, our focus is on moving forward in the best interests of Connecticut's students."
Malloy's director of communications, Andrew Doba, didn't like the line about how much the education department appreciated Sharpe and his charter school operation.
"I would get [rid] of the appreciation statements," Doba wrote June 21 at 4:45 p.m. in an email to Polites and top Malloy office aide Brian Durand. He actually wrote "ride," instead of "rid," in a typo.
Doba sent a copy to Adam Goldfarb, who is chief of staff for Commissioner Stefan Pryor at the state education department. Goldfarb sent Doba a reply 30 minutes later, arguing that the appreciation line should stay. "I think that part will be appreciated by multiple constituencies," Goldfarb wrote. "And it's a decent thing to do."
The line in question remained in the education department's statement when Polites' second version (same three sentences, but in a different order) was issued after FUSE announced Sharpe's resignation about 6:15 p.m.
It was the only time in a week of trouble that Doba didn't get his way.
Emails obtained Thursday by Government Watch indicate that Doba wields his authority as the governor's spokesman freely. Like his counterparts in many states, he insists on being kept informed of any significant questions from reporters to executive-branch agencies, and generally he is accorded utter obedience by the communications officers who act as public spokesmen for those agencies. At the education department, two people lately have been serving in that capacity — Polites and the agency's lead spokesperson, Kelly Donnelly.
The emails also show state government officials grappling with the best way to communicate about critically important issues such as background checks.
The Courant requested emails between Malloy's staff and the education department for the tumultuous week that included the following Courant disclosures:
•On June 16, a story saying that Hartford school officials were ready to curtail or terminate FUSE's management of the Milner Elementary School.
•On June 18, a report that Sharpe had a criminal record including forgery and embezzlement convictions, and had spent time in federal prison two decades ago.
•On June 20, a story that Sharpe's claim to have a doctorate in education was false.
All of that led to Sharpe's weekend resignation on Saturday, June 21, from FUSE, which is also called Family Urban Schools of Excellence.
On Sunday, June 22, the press aides began girding for follow-up stories by print and broadcast news organizations about what would happen next with FUSE/Jumoke. One issue was whether the group would continue its management of another municipal school, the Dunbar Elementary School in Bridgeport. School officials there, including Superintendent Frances Rabinowitz, have been questioning whether the charter group should continue running Dunbar school under a state education department "turnaround program" for struggling municipal schools.
Polites drafted a "Proposed Response" to questions about Dunbar: