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Courant: Sheff Plan Passes Legislative Committee Test

Wednesday April 23, 2008

Over Protests About Cost, Legislative Panel OKs Focus On Desegregation
Sheff Plan Passes Legislative Committee Test
by Colin Poitras and Arielle Levin Becker
Courant Staff Writers
April 23, 2008
©The Hartford Courant

A key legislative committee Tuesday approved the latest plan to reduce racial isolation in Hartford schools, with some lawmakers grudgingly throwing their support behind a regional approach that could cost taxpayers more than $600 million over the next five years.

The desegregation plan laid out in the latest settlement offer in the Sheff v. O’Neill case was endorsed by members of the General Assembly’s education committee in separate House and Senate votes.

The approvals all but guarantee that the new plan will take effect when the legislative session ends May 7, because a three-fifths supermajority in both houses is needed to overturn the resolution. If no vote is taken, the measure is deemed adopted and will be forwarded to a state judge for ratification.

House committee members, who voted 15-9 for the settlement, expressed reservations about the plan, which calls for a new level of cooperation between urban and suburban school districts to meet specific benchmarks annually through 2013.

“I believe this agreement is fatally flawed because it is based on desegregation rather than quality education,” state Rep. Debralee Hovey, R-Monroe, said before reluctantly casting a vote in favor of the plan. “To me, every parent has the right to expect their children will get the best education they can regardless of where they live.”

Sen. Thomas Gaffey, the committee’s co-chairman, defended the settlement as better than any previous version, while acknowledging that state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan ultimately may have to be empowered to force suburban towns to participate, if financial incentives for voluntary participation fail.

“This is going to take some work. It is going to take more than cajoling and a marketing effort and may take the force of law,” said Gaffey, a Meriden Democrat.

Supporters said the agreement represents the best chance yet to desegregate and improve the performance of Hartford’s racially isolated schools by forcing officials to come up with a comprehensive, plan of action by Nov. 30.

Components would include the construction of new magnet schools in Hartford-area suburbs; expanding the number of slots available to Hartford students in suburban public schools and technical and agricultural schools through the Open Choice program; and establishing racially integrated preschools.

The proposed settlement also calls for standardizing the magnet school application process, improving regional transportation and support for Hartford students attending schools in other districts, and allowing representatives of the Sheff v. O’Neill plaintiffs a more active role in overseeing the desegregation efforts.

Officials from the legislature’s bipartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis released new cost estimates for the initiative Tuesday that show the proposed construction of five new magnet schools over the next five years in Greater Hartford would cost about $483 million, including debt payments ($316.5 million in principal and $166.1 million in interest over 20 years.)

The analysis also showed that potential school operating costs under the desegregation plan could total at least $125 million over the five years.

The legislature has set aside $9.9 million to deal with Sheff demands in the proposed budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year. Operating costs are expected to nearly double in 2009-10 to $18.6 million and then cost another $96.5 million over the remaining three years.

Those kinds of costs concerned lawmakers like state Rep. Gail K. Hamm, D-East Hampton. “I just fundamentally don’t think this is the right remedy,” she said before casting her “no” vote. “It’s just too much money and I think it siphons the focus away from the achievement issue.”

State Rep. Antonietta Boucher, R-Wilton, said the state should focus on fixing Hartford schools rather than make suburban towns bail Hartford out.

“What I see in this bill is us throwing our hands up,” Boucher said. “We’re saying we can’t fix it; we’re going to decentralize rather than fix the Hartford school system.”

Parties in the Sheff litigation sued the state in 1989. A Superior Court judge in 1996 ordered the state to desegregate Hartford schools. A 2003 settlement called for increasing racial integration through voluntary enrollment in city and regional magnet schools and allowing Hartford students to enroll in suburban schools. The settlement expired last year, far short of its intended goals, opening negotiations for a new settlement offer.

Dennis Parker, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union and one of the plaintiff attorneys in the Sheff case, praised lawmakers for taking a step in the right direction Tuesday. He said the latest plan–with its proposed new magnet schools and use of Open Choice–benefits students far beyond Hartford.

Susan Kniep, the former mayor of East Hartford and president of the Federation of Connecticut Taxpayer Organizations, said lawmakers are throwing their support behind a plan with no certainty that it will work and no assurance that the costs won’t climb down the road.

She said the $600 million estimate “is being pulled out of the sky. In this economy, we have no way of knowing, once the ball gets rolling, how much this is going to cost taxpayers.”

Contact Colin Poitras at cpoitras@courant.com.