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Can Hartford Afford Its 50-Plus Schools?

Can the city just keep building more and more schools? When does it stop?

Hartford Courant Editorial

March 30, 2012

The proposal to build a permanent Museum Academy magnet school on the former site of the Hartford College for Women in the city's West End is too good an offer to refuse.

The $32 million project is a preschool-to-Grade 5 academy to be run by the Capitol Region Education Council. It will save the lovely historic mansions on the property, make the West End more attractive to young families and further the goals of the Sheff vs. O'Neill desegregation mandate. And it will do so with less traffic than is there now.

The proposal was controversial in the neighborhood but won the endorsement last week of the executive board of the West End Civic Association. It is scheduled to go before the city's planning and zoning commission on April 10, and should be approved.

There is every reason to think this project will be a jewel, a high-powered magnet for children from the neighborhood and the region. With the deteriorating state of the campus, this is the only project that will preserve it. The project's architects, from the Hartford firm of SmithEdwards, are among the best in the business. The school, which has been run there in a temporary site for three years, has a synergy with the nearby Connecticut Historical Society.

The Hard Question

But while the city should endorse this project, it is still another school. At some point, city leaders are going to have to ask how many schools Hartford can absorb.

Connecticut's cities and towns are heavily reliant on local property taxes. At 18 square miles, Hartford starts out with relatively little real property, and 52 percent of the land it does have is tax-exempt. In the past decade, the city has seen a burst of new schools of various kinds, built both to comply with the Sheff decision and to create schools of choice for city children.

The city's board of education now has 43 school buildings and two administrative buildings. Add another half-dozen CREC schools, and a handful of religious and private schools, and the city has well over 50 elementary and secondary schools (along with many college buildings).

The plan is more school construction. The school board has approved a $127 million plan to renovate Weaver High School, the first step needed to overhaul the Granby Street building. Jumoke Academy has purchased the former Hartford Medical Society building on Scarborough Street in the hope of expanding.

When Does It End?

Not all schools in the city are fully enrolled, but closing one is tricky.

Weaver is down to 552 students in two academies, one of which is moving next year. The board considered closing the property, a tough sell in the neighborhood that supports the school, that enthusiastically took part in the redesign talks and that was somewhat ignored in the recent school boom. The academic portion of the building is in tough shape, but the fieldhouse and auditorium are in good condition.

Plus, the city has to compete for students, or at some point it won't be able to sustain a school system. If the new Weaver can at least take advantage of its proximity to the University of Hartford, which is part of the plan, the new 1,600-student school, with three separate academies, could work

But it will be expensive. If the city council approves the project, the city will have to bond 20 percent of the price tag, or about $25 million. The city is facing a $54 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year.

It is great to have all of these schools; education is the hope of the city. At the same time, the city has to pay its bills. Can it keep all these schools? It's a tough question.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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