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Judge Sends Sheff Deal Back

It's Still Officially Before The Legislature, Despite Parties' Assumptions, Berger Says

By RACHEL GOTTLIEB FRANK, Courant Staff Writer

January 25, 2008

The Superior Court judge in the Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit breathed new life into a desegregation accord Thursday when he called attorneys for the state and the plaintiffs together to tell them he's putting court action on hold until either the legislature has a chance to act on the plan, or it is withdrawn.

State Sen. Thomas Gaffey, co-chairman of the education committee, said he is less than enthusiastic about the shift of the Sheff case back to his arena. The accord calls for the state to spend more than $100 million, mostly on new schools that would attract white suburban students to heavily minority Hartford.

"Why did the court go through this whole process only to say, 'Oh well let the legislature deal with this?' I find that odd."

In testimony in November and in legal briefs, both sides presented their arguments on the assumption that the settlement plan that the state and the plaintiffs had submitted to the legislature for ratification was dead, said Judge Marshall K. Berger Jr.

But Berger said that his own research revealed that the proposed settlement remains before the legislature.

So, "in light of this branch's respect for other branches," Berger said, he will wait.

Ralph Urban, representing the state attorney general's office, said state officials treated the proposed settlement as dead because some of the deadlines in the agreement can no longer be met.

Those deadlines some already missed now "go to the core of the agreement," state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said later.

Nevertheless, Urban said, he looked into the matter at Berger's request and found that Berger was correct. When the legislature opens its next regular session Feb. 6, the settlement "will be pending unless the attorney general withdraws it."

Matthew Colangelo, arguing for the plaintiffs, said the plaintiffs also have the right to withdraw the agreement from the legislature.

Colangelo may be correct, Berger said: "I don't know."

Blumenthal said state officials have not yet decided whether to withdraw the settlement or try to negotiate with the plaintiffs to set new deadlines in the agreement. "The question is, what really is before the legislature at this point?" he asked.

The recent court hearings, like the proposed settlement, are meant to come up with a means for integrating poor, mostly minority urban children with their more privileged suburban peers. More than 10 years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled that the segregation that exists in Hartford is unconstitutional and ordered the state to remedy the situation, but left it to the state and plaintiffs to find a way to do that.

The two sides worked out an agreement in 2003 that called for the development of magnet schools and the expansion of the Open Choice program that allows city children to enroll in suburban schools. The settlement set forth some numerical goals for racial balance in those schools.

The deal expired in 2007 without reaching its numerical goals. So the state and the plaintiffs met again to work out a new settlement. It's that document that was submitted to the legislature.

Beginning Feb. 6, the legislature will have 30 days to reject the settlement or to ratify it. If no action is taken in that time, then the settlement will automatically go into effect. The situation was a bit different when it was submitted last session because there were fewer than 30 days left before the session ended, so in order for it to be ratified, the legislature would have had to vote to approve it.

Since no vote was taken in the last regular session or during a brief special session, the settlement remains before the legislature and the 30-day clock begins again in February when the new session begins.

The settlement on the table at the General Assembly calls for the state to spend $112 million over the next five years, mostly to fund magnet, charter and vocational-technical schools designed to attract white suburban students to reduce the racial isolation of Hartford students.

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, who also is chairman of the school board, and the city's superintendent of schools, Steven Adamowski, have urged lawmakers to reject the agreement until the state develops a detailed, comprehensive plan for school integration. Hartford officials worry that the city will get saddled with high costs to help build and operate new schools and for transportation.

Gaffey opposes the proposed settlement because he believes it's doomed to fail just as the first settlement expired without reaching its goals. "You don't have buy-in from the district at all, so this will be far more difficult to achieve."

The numerical goals in the settlement are "arbitrary," Gaffey said, "and I don't believe them to be achievable."

Still, Gaffey said, it will be difficult to muster the three-fifths vote in each house that would be needed to defeat the measure.

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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