Connecticut State Budget, Fiscal 2017

by Categorized: Data, Finance, Government, Politics Date:

Legislators are preparing to vote on a nearly $20 billion budget for the next fiscal year – a revised spending plan that trims more than $800 million from what legislators approved 11 months ago. Here’s a breakdown of the proposed budget by department and by line-item description. Hovering over the bubbles will display each department’s total budget. Clicking on a department will show line-item spending for that agency.

FOIC Rules Teacher Rating Data is Public. Now Let’s Open Up Individual Evaluations.

by Categorized: Data, Education, Transparency/FOI Date:

Over the objections of teacher unions, the Freedom of Information Commission ruled Wednesday that there’s no reason to keep secret the fact that New Milford school officials think about three-quarters of their teachers are accomplished and one quarter are exemplary.

If that doesn’t sound like the sort of information that calls for breaking out the lawyers to keep under wraps, welcome to the strange world of teacher evaluations – the only public-employee evaluations in Connecticut that are kept confidential by law.

Thirty years ago, the legislature cut off public access to “records of teacher performance and evaluation,” swallowing the argument that without secrecy, parents would engage in “teacher shopping” by poring over personnel files and then harassing principals to pair their kids with the “good teachers.” I don’t know how silly that argument sounded three decades ago, but every time I mention it in casual conversation these days, the universal response is, “But everyone already knows who the good teachers are.”

Nevertheless, it’s been the law since 1984 that the public shalt not see a teacher’s performance review (and by “teacher,” the legislature decided that term should apply to librarians and reading specialists and assistant principals and every other certified school professional except the superintendent.)

But the Commission Wednesday permitted a tiny peek under the tent, ruling unanimously that the law protecting records of teacher performance was intended to apply to an individual, identifiable teacher’s evaluation, and not to anonymous, aggregated data for an entire district.

That is a victory for John Spatola, who was turned down when he asked the New Milford school system to release data related to the state’s far-from-perfect effort to uniformly assess the competency of the state’s teaching force. The state plan established a variety of criteria that placed teachers into one of four categories; exemplary, proficient, developing and below standard. (New Milford substituted the term “accomplished” for “proficient.)

So Spatola, a former member of the New Milford Board of Education, asked for data showing the number of local teachers who were placed in each of the four categories. New Milford officials were reluctant to release the data without some assurance that they could do so without breaking the law. The local and state teachers’ unions, meanwhile, intervened and urged the FOI Commission to keep a cloak on the numbers, saying their release would be illegal and would harm teachers.

The legal argument is built on the broad language of the statute, which cuts off public access to “any” record of teacher performance and evaluation. The unions argued that that language covered the aggregated data Spatola was seeking. The Commission disagreed, adopting a hearing officer’s finding that the law was meant to shield records related to individual teachers. “The requested records, which do not identify individual teachers or individual schools,” the hearing officer wrote, “cannot be used for ‘teacher shopping.’ ”

While Spatola hails the ruling as a triumph for transparency, it was somewhat academic; New Milford’s numbers, and those of many other school districts, had already come to light when they were entered as an exhibit in an ongoing lawsuit against the state Department of Education. But the data that came out of that case was heavily redacted, with some information missing for two-thirds of the state’s districts, and all information missing for nearly half.

Given the FOI Commission’s ruling, I’ve sent a request to the State Department of Ed for an unredacted copy of the data. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, isn’t it time for the legislature to remember that it’s the public who ultimately employs the state’s public-school teachers? And to rethink a law that prevents the public from seeing performance evaluations for some of its most important employees?

UConn-Syracuse, Minute-by-Minute

by Categorized: Data, Sports, UConn Date:

A 16-0 Syracuse run late in the third quarter added a dash of excitement, but overall, the UConn women dominated on their march to a fourth consecutive NCAA championship.

Use the scroll bar or arrows below to see how the individual players performed during the 40 minutes of play.

Charity Check: The University of Connecticut Foundation

by Categorized: Charity Check, Transparency/FOI, UConn Date:

The University of Connecticut Foundation is back in the news and back at the Capitol for the perennial tug-of-war over opening the foundation’s books. In the last two legislative sessions,
lawmakers have introduced bills that would subject the fundraising arm of the university to the Freedom of Information Act and allow the Auditors of Public Accounts to review the foundation’s finances.

Those bills went nowhere. But this year, a dramatically watered-down version of the legislation has UConnFoundationLogobeen introduced that would require the foundation to release a laundry list of documents – most of which are already public by state or federal law. Perhaps the most significant change involves the disclosure of how many disbursements the foundation makes for various categories of support, including scholarships and endowed professorships and program support – although the university already reports the total amount spent on those categories.

A second bill, for which a public hearing is scheduled tomorrow, March 18th, would require the foundation to release information on its financial support for faculty and staff (though the bill’s wording leaves it unclear whether that would require more disclosure than the university already makes). And the legislation would make public the names of people and companies donating to the foundation – unless the donor requests secrecy.  If that bill passes, it will be particularly interesting to see how the foundation implements that provision.

Click here or the chart below to download our full Charity Check report on the University of Connecticut Foundation (which will open as a Word document). And click the image at bottom to download the foundation’s most recent tax return.

Click here for full Charity Check

UConn Foundation tax form

Census Nerds Revive “Population Bracketology” For March Madness

by Categorized: Uncategorized Date:

The hipster coders at the U.S. Census Bureau – yes, they exist – are embracing March Madness once again this year by reviving a bracket game to test your population knowledge. Is Tennessee bigger than Iowa? What about North Dakota vs. New Hampshire? Florida or New York?

In six rounds, players earn a point for each correct answer. And each new game scrambles the state pairs for a new challenge. For the extra-competitive, there’s also a bracket game for the 64 largest metro areas in the country.PopulationBracketology

Pain At The Pump For Luxury Car Owners

by Categorized: Business, Consumer Affairs, Data Date:

Retail gas prices in the region have been cut in half since 2011, but a degree of pain persists for one class of drivers: those with high-end cars that require high-octane fuel.

If you luxury-car drivers feel like you’ve been paying an extra premium for premium fuel lately, you’re right. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration PremiumGasshow that the price gap between regular unleaded and super unleaded has soared in the past year – the result, experts say, of tight competition for regular gas and costlier processing for the high-end stuff.

For most of the last decade, as the chart below shows, premium fuel was 7 or 8 percent more expensive than regular. But the gap began rising sharply in mid-2014. After a dip in early 2015, the gap skyrocketed, rising from a 12-percent surcharge last June to nearly 31 percent on Monday.

That translates to an extra 55 cents a gallon for premium unleaded today, more than twice the extra cost for most of the decade, even when fuel prices were far higher. And at some stations, the surcharge is far higher. At one West Hartford Shell station, premium users this week were paying an extra 90 cents a gallon – a 47-percent bump – for super unleaded. That’s an extra $25 every time a Lincoln Navigator owner fills up.

Why the big gap? Part of the explanation is the hyper-competitive market for regular gas, which makes up the vast majority of a typical service station’s sales. That’s the price most prominently featured on the giant lighted signs at gas stations, and it generates the thinnest profit margins as stations compete for price-conscious consumers. But drivers of pricier cars with more demanding engines tend to be less price-conscious and make for welcome targets as gas station owners look to make up for thin margins on regular gas.

“Stations find competitive benefits in dropping regular prices as a way to attract customers,” AAA reported in response to questions about gas prices. “The reality is that many premium customers will continue to shop at the same station regardless as to whether the price is dropping as fast as regular.”

At the same time, even with the hefty surcharge, some regular-unleaded users are splurging, since even the inflated prices for high-octane gas are far lower than the prices charged for regular gas just months ago. The current average price for premium gas in New England – about $2.32 a gallon – is 45 cents a gallon cheaper than customers were paying for regular gas last June. As regular-gas users treat themselves to high-test, that changes the supply/demand equation.

And some experts also say that boosting the octane of the raw fuel delivered to stations has become more expensive, particularly as the formulation of North American shale oil – the fuel currently in abundant supply – is better suited to regular unleaded than super. “As a result,” according to AAA, “supplies of regular gasoline have remained more plentiful than premium.” And that, too, changes the supply/demand equation.

But there may be relief on the way. AAA reports that historically, the price gap between regular and premium gas is at its highest in the winter. “In the summer,” the association reports, “the spread between regular and premium is at its closest.”

And summer is a mere 111 days away.PremiumGas