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Blumenthal: Magnet School Site No Good

Mayor Perez Remains Defiant In Spat Between City, State Over Parcel

February 2, 2007

The spat has sometimes been a political soap opera, at other times more like TV wrestling. And Hartford's mayor sustained a serious blow Thursday when the state attorney general said the city can't build a magnet school on an oddly shaped lot the state gave the city - even though ground has already been broken.

But a defiant Mayor Eddie A. Perez threw a counterpunch, essentially telling the state: If we can't build here, then find us a better site.

Were it TV melodrama, this is where the words "To Be Continued" would be at the bottom of the screen.

What started out four years ago as happy plan to build a magnet school called Pathways to Technology, which would train students for technology jobs and help to desegregate Hartford schools, has devolved into a political standoff extraordinaire.

On one side: the headstrong and powerful mayor, who doubles as chairman of the school board and triples as chairman of a school-building committee that is overseeing a billion-dollar building and renovation plan.

On the other side: the governor, a majority of the city's legislative delegation and the state Senate chairman of the education committee.

At issue: A triangle of land at the busy corner where two of the city's main arteries - Farmington Avenue and Asylum Avenue - meet Broad Street. It is bounded by I-84 and commands a view of the Capitol and downtown Hartford.

The original Hartford Public High School stood on a larger parcel there until the state took it so the highway could plow through. Ultimately, the state turned what was left of the plot back to the city with three deed restrictions: it could be used only for a park, public safety complex or economic development.

It's a lonely parcel that slopes steeply down to I-84, a plot some call "no man's land." Perez launched the project, confident that the state would bend to his will and change the deed to allow his school. He was undeterred last spring when the legislature, at the urging of the city's delegation, left the deed restrictions intact.

The state Department of Education warned the city it was putting its own money at risk by moving ahead without easing the deed restrictions.

Perez pushed on, however. The school, he and his advisers decided, is a form of economic development - one of the allowed uses. The state Office of Policy and Management asked Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to render a legal opinion on that interpretation.

But even before Blumenthal weighed in, the city erected a sign on the site declaring that a school would be built there.

Hartford legislators cried foul. The corner is too choked with traffic to be a safe place for kids to cross streets, they said. They fumed about fumes wafting up from the highway and about inadequate space for outdoor recreation. Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, co-chairman of the education committee, wrote angry letters, scoffing at the mayor's attempt to call the school economic development.

Perez waved off the concerns. There will be traffic improvements, he said, and urban schools can't always have the luxury of ball fields. What this site offers instead, he argued, is a short walk to insurance offices and other businesses for internships.

Earth-moving equipment moved in to dig up trees and to ready the ground for construction.

On Thursday, Blumenthal dropped what Perez saw as a bomb but others expected.

"It is clear," the attorney general said in a press conference, "that this educational project is extraordinarily worthwhile, but it is still an educational project, not an economic development plan or activity."

The state remains committed to building magnet schools in compliance with the Sheff vs. O'Neill court settlement, he said, but deed restrictions cannot be interpreted to allow construction of a school on the Broad Street site.

What happens next is not laid out in Blumenthal's decision. The land belongs to the city, but the misuse of the property in violation of the deed could result in the return of the land to state ownership, Blumenthal said.

Perez gathered his supporters and they made a stand on the land Thursday afternoon. Huddled in a circle beside towering mounds of dirt, students, parents and others declared their dedication to the site.

"I think it's a great site for the school," said Sam Saylor, president of the PTO president's counsel. "This is prime real estate. ... The state isn't here to dictate what streets we build our schools on. We don't need big brother. The spirit of Sheff vs. O'Neill stands on this site."

Florence Johnson, president of the PTO, blasted the temporary space where the school resides in Windsor. "It's atrocious. There are no science labs. There are no microscopes. We're in a warehouse. There's no gym. There's no room for assembly. We need fields for sports. Gym is in the parking lot. I think it's appalling."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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