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Courant: Official Seeks More Power In Sheff Case

Wednesday November 14, 2007

Official Seeks More Power In Sheff Case
by Rachel Gottlieb Frank
Courant Staff Writer
November 14, 2007
©The Hartford Courant

The state education commissioner would like the legal authority to force suburban districts to accept students of color from Hartford, he testified Tuesday in the ongoing hearing on the Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation lawsuit.

During cross-examination, Hartford’s lawyer, John Rose, asked Commissioner Mark McQuillan what power he has now.

“Other than moral suasion, what authority do you have to say to the superintendent of Wethersfield, ‘Open up some space?'” Rose asked.

“I have no authority,” McQuillan said.

“Would you support legislation giving you the authority?” Rose asked.

“I would support legislation,” he said. “If all else fails, I would like to have that authority.”

The plaintiffs in the Sheff lawsuit are back in court seeking judicial intervention in the long-running case to end the racial, ethnic and economic isolation of Hartford’s children. The lawsuit was filed in 1989 and in 1996 the state Supreme Court ruled for the plaintiffs, but left it up to them to work out a remedy with the state.

Over the years, the two sides agreed to a compromise which has now expired that called for the integration of students through magnet schools and enrolling city students in suburban schools through the state’s Open Choice program.

But it’s up to the suburban districts to make space available for city students, and some districts, such as Wethersfield, haven’t opened new seats in years, McQuillan testified.

As a result, the state fell short of its Open Space quota by about 500 students.

McQuillan commissioned a study to evaluate the space available in the districts around Hartford. When that’s done, he said, he will be able to approach superintendents and ask them to find room for city children, but if they decline he won’t be able force them to accept students.

Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski is expected to testify today as the last witness in the hearing. Judge Marshall K. Berger Jr. then would have 120 days to issue a ruling.

Contact Rachel Gottlieb Frank at rgottlieb@courant.com.