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Desegregation By Order?

Plaintiffs' Attorneys In Sheff v. O'Neill Argue For Court-Ordered Plan, Monitor To Direct It

By RACHEL GOTTLIEB FRANK, Courant Staff Writer

January 04, 2008

Attorneys in the landmark Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation case offered sharply conflicting recommendations to a Superior Court judge who is considering ways to end the racial and social isolation of Hartford schoolchildren.

In closing arguments Thursday, plaintiffs' attorneys asked Judge Marshall K. Berger Jr. to issue a detailed order spelling out exactly what the state should do to integrate city students with their suburban counterparts. A lawyer for the city urged the court to appoint a monitor to oversee the task.

An attorney for the state of Connecticut argued that no order, nor monitor was necessary or desirable. The state education commissioner can bring about the desegregation goals without judicial intervention, he said.The closing arguments followed a six-week hiatus in the hearing. Testimony concluded in November and Berger gave lawyers time to prepare legal briefs.

If his questions to the lawyers offered any indication, Berger is at least considering requests that he issue a plan for desegregation or appoint a monitor to oversee progress.

The question of whether the city's schools must be desegregated was settled by a state Supreme Court order in 1996, though the high court left it to the Sheff plaintiffs and the state to figure out how to do it. The two sides reached an agreement on a four-year plan in 2003: It was left largely to Hartford to implement the terms of the settlement by building magnet schools and sending students to suburban schools through the "Open Choice" program. However, the numerical goals of the 2003 agreement specifying levels of integration were not met and after the accord expired last year, the plaintiffs returned to court.

In testimony in November, the plaintiffs proposed leaving desegregation efforts voluntary for parents and children, but imposing stricter guidelines for the state and the 22 Hartford-area towns in the Sheff district. They called for doubling the space available for city children in suburban schools and a heavier hand by state officials to ensure that every city child who wants a place in a suburban school or a magnet school is accommodated.

"We're not asking for mandatory busing," Dennis Parker, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, argued Thursday. "We are asking that a comprehensive plan be put into effect." Efforts to date, he argued, have been ad hoc.

"African American and Latino children of Hartford have earned the right to question what a constitutional right means," Parker said. "A declaration of their rights by the Supreme Court has been ineffective for so long."

John Rose, Hartford's lawyer, called the 2003 stipulated agreement between the state and the plaintiffs "a failure;" though he didn't offer a specific remedy, Rose asked for judicial oversight beyond the role that the court has played in the past.

"We need a plan and it needs to be monitored by the court. It can take us places where we have never gone before," Rose said. "This case is about children who are going nowhere fast."

Berger asked Rose who he should name as a monitor if he does appoint one. Rose suggested that the court ask the parties to suggest names.

At one point, Berger asked Parker what he would think of appointing the commissioner of education as a monitor. Parker objected to the idea, saying he doesn't have faith in the state's overseeing its own progress. Since 1996, Parker said, the state's posture has been "trust us — we're on top of this."

Ralph Urban, arguing for the state, vehemently opposed any judicial intervention, saying a court-issued comprehensive plan to desegregate Hartford's schools would lock resources into specific programs, making it impossible to move them into areas where the money would be better spent.

He conceded that the state was disappointed by the number of slots suburban districts made available for city children and by the number of white students enrolled in some magnet schools. But, he said, the state is addressing concerns suburban districts have about admitting more students through the Open Choice program by increasing the transportation and educational subsidies and by helping to pay for more kindergarten slots in the suburbs so districts can work with children from a young age and avoid having to offer more remedial services for older children.

"The question is 'What now?'" Berger asked Urban.

Now, Urban replied, the state is still working on achieving the goals established for the first two years of a plan agreed upon in 2003.

But that's a four-year plan, Berger said. "The only people who signed on to this plan are the plaintiffs. Hartford has not signed on." The state legislature did not ratify the plan either.

Last year, a plan negotiated between attorneys for the Sheff plaintiffs and the state failed to win legislative approval. It would have required the state to spend $112 million to expand the network of magnet, charter and vocational schools.

Urban said that the state's education commissioner has agreed to work on the kind of plan that the plaintiffs have sought.

So "you're not averse to creating a strategic plan?" Berger asked.

"Right," Urban said. "But we don't want to be subject to a court order."

"Are you telling me that you don't want a strategic plan, but you will deliver to me a strategic plan?" Berger asked.

"We don't think we should be ordered to deliver a strategic plan," Urban said. But if the court orders the state to create one, he said, then it will.

While Urban asserts that the matter doesn't belong in court, the plaintiffs disagree. They argue that the state Supreme Court previously ruled that court has jurisdiction and that a second generation of children is languishing in segregated schools since the Supreme Court first ruled in 1996.

Berger can craft a ruling that grants the plaintiffs what they're seeking, he can agree with the state and refrain from issuing an order, or he can fashion a compromise that he devises himself. He has 120 days from Thursday to issue a ruling.

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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