As the budget remains in limbo at the state Capitol, supporters of the Sheff settlement are becoming more vocal in their opposition to Gov. M. Jodi Rell's spending proposals, which they say could spoil court-ordered efforts to address racial isolation in Hartford-area schools.
Under an agreement reached last year in the Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation lawsuit, 27 percent of Hartford students should attend an integrated school by the fall, and suburban schools are expected to increase the number of slots in their classrooms for city children.
Rell has offered to provide roughly level funding next year for Open Choice, the program that allows Hartford students to attend participating school districts.
State money for magnet schools, another key component of the Sheff agreement, would rise from the current $121.5 million to $135 million next fiscal year and $145.6 million in 2010-11 under Rell's plan.
The state Department of Education had requested magnet school funding of $143.9 million and $166.6 million over the next two years, which supports regional schools that the Capitol Region Education Council operates for the state and "host" schools that Hartford runs.
Sheff advocates contend that the extra money is needed for the settlement to succeed.
Already, Hartford has mailed $4,600 tuition bills to school districts for each student sent to the city's host schools; Superintendent Steven Adamowski says that inadequate state funding means his school district won't be able to absorb all of the education costs.
Local school officials, in return, argue that their education budgets are too burdened this year to consider new expenses in the name of Sheff and reject the idea of paying tuition.
"This is a make-or-break point in regard to the Sheff decision, and we must follow the law of the land as prescribed in the courts," CREC Executive Director Bruce Douglas said late last week at a news conference inside the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
"We need to keep pushing that button. We need to keep knocking on Gov. Rell's door ... because what's at stake is our children's future," said Hartford activist Elizabeth Horton Sheff, whose son Milo served as the lead plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit filed in 1989.
State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D- West Hartford, co-chairman of the education committee, also called on Connecticut to step up "to its legal and moral responsibilities here."
Jeffrey Beckham, a spokesman for the state Office of Policy and Management, said Monday that education funding is a priority for Rell, and "at a time when everyone else in the budget is getting cut, they're getting increased. ... I'm sure advocates would like to see more, but a little perspective seems to be in order."
In Glastonbury, where about 14 students elect to attend Hartford magnet schools, Superintendent Alan Bookman said his main concern is for parents who don't know where their children will attend school this fall. Bookman ruled out the notion of paying Hartford tuition.
"Nobody budgeted for it," Bookman said. His school district and others "cut everything to the bone" this year. "Without proper [state] funding, with the expectation that suburban students are going to go to Hartford schools, where is that money going to come from?"
West Hartford school board Chairman Terry Schmitt was more blunt.
"No school district in its right mind would spend extra money out of the goodness of its heart," said Schmitt, a pastor. "It would be financially irresponsible."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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