June 21, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
NEW BRITAIN -- The plaintiffs in the landmark Sheff vs. O'Neill
lawsuit to desegregate Hartford's schools were in court Monday
accusing the state of breaching the settlement in the long-running
case by falling woefully behind in enrolling students in new
Hartford magnet schools.
After hearing arguments in Superior Court in New Britain, Judge
A. Susan Peck deferred making a decision - but not before making
it clear she is inclined to side with the state.
"Based on what I have before me, I can't find that the state
is in breach of this agreement," Peck said.
The settlement reached between the state and the plaintiffs in
January 2003 requires the state to open two interdistrict magnet
schools in Hartford of 600 students each year for four years. The
plaintiffs assert that the state must fill those schools as they
come on line and that it is far behind. The state contends that
the settlement simply requires a capacity for 600 students in each
school, but that its method of phasing in students by adding new
grades each year is in compliance with the agreement.
"It was always the state's intent that the schools would
open with a capacity of 600 and grow," said Ralph E. Urban,
assistant attorney general. "Magnet schools don't open just
like that with four grades and full capacity."
"Nobody wants to go to their senior year in high school in
a new school," he said, explaining that new schools start
with students in the lowest grades and then refill that grade each
year as the first class moves through the grades. "There is
a plan. There is a scheme. It's working."
Sheff attorney Wesley W. Horton
argued that the settlement stipulation did not refer to the word
`capacity.' The language, he said, stated that the schools would
be "host magnets of 600. It did not
say `with a capacity of 600' or `600 seats.'"
With hundreds of students on the waiting lists each year, Horton
said, the state could surely fill the schools.
Next school year - the third year of the four-year settlement
plan - the agreement calls for 3,600 spots for students in magnet
schools, and Horton said each seat should be filled. The actual
capacity will exceed the stipulated agreement, according to state
projections, with places for 4,080 students but enrollment is expected
to be 1,750. The waiting lists are for the lower grades, which
are filled to capacity.
The settlement sets forth a goal of enrolling 30 percent of Hartford's
children in racially integrated magnet schools or in suburban schools
through the school choice program. Urban said that the state is
on track to have 25 percent of the city students enrolled in integrated
schools and will ultimately achieve 30 percent.
Horton said goals are not legally enforceable but that the specific
enrollment figures for the magnet schools - 600 per school - is
For the first half of the hearing, attorneys for each side took
turns arguing their points. After Peck made it clear that she thought
the state was meeting its obligations, Urban sat quietly while
Peck and Horton debated.
"I don't know how I could find [the state] in material breach
based on this language unless they didn't have a game plan or they
didn't open the schools or they failed to operate two new magnet
schools each year," Peck said. "How do you open two schools
and expect that on day one they will be filled to capacity or even
to substantial capacity? They're untested. They're untried."
Horton suggested that Peck was
interpreting the settlement in a way that it was not written. "You're
reading `capacity' into it."
"I'm not reading `capacity' into it," Peck
said. The wording, she said, could mean that the school must
open for 600 students, anticipating that they will be accommodated.
"Under that reading, there wouldn't have to be one student," Horton
"That's not true," Peck said. "There's
good faith and fair dealing expected in every contract."
Peck suggested that if Horton wanted to try to prove that the
state is not doing all that it can in planning and developing the
schools and hiring enough staff, then she would permit a hearing.
Horton said he'd like to consider the option and would let Peck
know by July 1 whether he would request a hearing.
Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the plaintiff's mother and a Hartford
city council member, expressed deep frustration after the arguments
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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