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Hartford Can't Grow Without Good Schools

Commentary by Gina Greenlee
August 23, 2005

Hartford works for me for many reasons, chief among them that I don't have children. For years I've known professional people of childbearing age - the kind Hartford wants to attract and retain - who have lived in this city, believed in it, put their activist stake in the ground, only to leave it when their children were ready for school. Suburb-based Hartford advocates have told me they'll move here in a minute - "when my children are out of school."

More than crime, parking conundrums and claims of nothing to do in the capital city, the top reason I've heard for why people don't live here is the city's public school system. I don't know the answer to turning the system around. But I know this: Hartford can't grow without it.

Because raising children is more of a societal norm than is being child-free, the marketing call to relocate to Hartford - a great place to live, work and play - must be grounded in the city's ability to deliver a quality product to parents. That means effective schools for the children of the people the city wants to attract. For every perk a Hartford employer tosses at the feet of a prospective employee, there may be three Courant headlines about the school system's failures, dousing enthusiasm for settling in the capital city. The difficult topic of race always surfaces when those failures assume the spotlight. Yet a different R-word requires serious attention: regionalism.

In 1998, Gordon A. Bruno, a doctorate-holding school superintendent, educator and founding director of the Connecticut Center for School Change, released a comprehensive proposal called "The Unexamined Remedy" in response to Sheff vs. O'Neill, the school-desegregation case. In the fall 2002/winter 2003 issue of "Learning Communities Narratives" published by the Learning Communities Network, Bruno wrote that the proposal outlined how regional school districts would work. Specifically, the recommendations included "abolishing present district boundaries that coincided with municipal lines and establishing regional entities ..." Besides ensuring racial balance, Bruno's recommendations included changes that involved "curriculum, school and class size, finance, professional development, teacher and administrative preparation, affirmative action, student health and social services, parent involvement and school governance."

Based on a successful school-assignment model in Cambridge, Mass., the CCSC plan would, according to the Learning Communities Network, enhance "the caliber of education offered all students in the desegregating and consolidating districts." Bruno wrote that "wide disparities in budgets among municipalities [would] be eliminated ... with state resources reallocated to schools according to need and a regional school tax assessed to each municipality based on its ability to pay."

This makes a whole lot of sense.

Yet, in a state where residents so rabidly identify with any one of the 169 municipalities they call home; where The Courant is considered of little value if it doesn't report on high school sports scores; where those who have the money to put politicians in office may threaten to withdraw support of pro-regionalization candidates, what legislators are going to have the intestinal fortitude to support a Hartford-area regional school district? Moreover, how many school boards and administrators are willing to relinquish autonomy or risk job loss with streamlined district consolidation? The title of Bruno's narrative, "A Remedy Ignored," answers those questions.

Our eye is on the wrong prize. Who cares how many new restaurants, clubs, bars, luxury condos and meeting venues open downtown if the city bleeds current residents and repels prospective ones who are raising children? Fix the school system. Otherwise, meaningful, long-term revitalization of this city is doomed.

Gina Greenlee edits an internal publication for a financial services company in Hartford and writes a twice-monthly column for The Courant. To leave her a comment, please e-mail her at gdg70@hotmail.com.

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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