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State Fares Well In Sheff Hearing

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 enforceable.

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 said.

"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 closed.

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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