July 21, 2007
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief
Saying the deal is flawed, state legislators will not ratify the latest Sheff v. O'Neill settlement during a special session Monday - shifting the focus of the Hartford school desegregation case back to the courts.
Some lawmakers had expected the legislature to approve a tentative agreement calling for the state to spend more than $100 million over the next five years to reduce racial isolation in Hartford schools.
But concerns raised by Hartford educators - and by legislators who say money alone won't solve the problem - have stalled action at the state Capitol, and the deal becomes null and void without the General Assembly's approval.
The inaction angered Wesley Horton, a lawyer for the Sheff plaintiffs.
"Time is wasting, and we can't wait around forever for the legislature to do something," Horton said Friday.
"If the legislature won't let us deal with the state, then we will have to go to the judge."
The problem, lawmakers said, is that Hartford schools are as segregated now as they were when the state Supreme Court ruled in Sheff's favor in 1996.
"I still have real serious concerns about the chances of this [settlement] succeeding," said Sen. Thomas Gaffey, co-chairman of the education committee for the past 11 years. "To me, it just seems more of the same. ... We're talking about $112 million of the public's money. We ought to take pause and do this right."
House Speaker James Amann agreed. The amount spent over the past decade proves that money alone does not guarantee results, he said. If money were the sole answer, the legislature would have already solved the problem, he said.
The overwhelming majority of students in Hartford schools are black or Hispanic; most are poor. Under the agreement, the state would spend an additional $112 million over the next five years, most of it to fund magnet, charter and vocational-technical schools designed to attract white suburban students.
Amann said he expects legislative leaders to discuss the issue Monday and decide whether they might be able to vote on the settlement in the coming weeks. Gaffey and others are expected to meet with Hartford's school superintendent, Steven J. Adamowski, and Gov. M. Jodi Rell's budget director, Robert Genuario.
Adamowski and Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez last week urged lawmakers to reject the latest agreement until the state has a more comprehensive plan to deal with school integration.
Perez said he fears the agreement could lead to excessive construction and busing costs that his city cannot afford. He noted the city still has not been reimbursed for more than $3.2 million in construction costs at one magnet schools.
Gaffey said it was unrealistic to expect the General Assembly to approve the settlement because it was dropped on the legislature just before the regular session ended June 6.
"You gotta be nuts to think we're going to take this up with 48 hours to go in the session," he said.
The Sheff motion, filed before Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger Jr., is the latest legal maneuver in a case that began 18 years ago.
In 2003, the two sides reached a settlement designed to expand opportunities for Hartford students to enroll in racially integrated magnet schools and predominantly white suburban schools. That four-year deal, however, failed to reach its goals and expired on June 30.
The two sides then sent to the legislature a tentative agreement that would established new goals and extended the original settlement by five years.
The original settlement set a target calling for 30 percent of Hartford students to be enrolled in racially integrated schools by this year, but the effort has fallen short.
A recent study by Trinity College researchers reported that only 9 percent of the city's students attend schools that have enough white students to qualify as racially integrated under the Sheff agreement.
At the same time, enrollments at many Hartford's schools, including some magnets, remain almost entirely black and Hispanic. The Trinity report found that magnet schools, instead of drawing white suburban children into the city, have been more popular among black and Hispanic suburban families. It also found that previous gains under a program allowing city children to enroll in suburban schools have stagnated.
Hartford officials' opposition to the latest settlement got the attention of some lawmakers.
"If the city of Hartford doesn't think it's good, we have to take that into account," said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat. "It's their city, their schools."
Despite initial high hopes on several issues, Amann said there would be no votes Monday on Sheff, contracting reform or the annual bonding package of construction projects.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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