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Sides Seek Sheff Pact; Serious Talks In School Desegregation Case

July 13, 2002
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

For the first time in the 13-year history of the Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation case, lawyers for both sides are holding serious negotiations aimed at settling the landmark case.

The state and the plaintiffs announced Friday that they are seeking an extension of the deadline to file legal briefs until after Labor Day to give them time to negotiate for a settlement. They said they expect Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma to grant the extension. While there is no guarantee the state and the plaintiffs will be able to agree on a way to end the case and the segregation that the state Supreme Court in 1996 ruled is unconstitutional, the announcement said they will take July and August to try to craft a resolution. This twist in the case, now in its third round of hearings, was startling because both sides have been far apart for more than a decade.

Aurigemma, reached at her home Friday, said she had not yet received a motion requesting an extension. "They said it might be coming."

Aurigemma, who ruled three years ago that the state was proceeding as it should and granted more time for it to comply with the state Supreme Court's desegregation order, had asked both sides for suggestions on how she should rule. She indicated in court that she may not simply go with one side or the other, saying "It may well be the court doesn't believe the [Sheff] plan is the way to go or adopting the state's plan of leaving things the way they are is the way to go."

The question itself, she said, could be seen as gentle prodding for the two sides to work out a compromise. "Have I encouraged them?" she said, repeating a question put to her. "I probably did." Rather, she later clarified, "I didn't encourage them to settle. I just asked for suggestions." Then she laid out what both sides were facing. "If I decided I wanted to take a middle ground, I might be out on my own and that wouldn't be a good idea. If the plaintiffs and the state can find a way to live with a resolution, that would be excellent," Aurigemma said. "It would be a good thing for everyone."

There were talks about a settlement before the lawsuit was filed in 1989, said John C. Brittain, who was a principal lawyer for the plaintiffs in the first round of the case but who has shifted to being more of an informed observer since moving to Texas to teach law. The difference now, Brittain said, is both sides have shown their stamina and fully aired their legal theories, and judges have ruled on those theories. "The parties have once again seen each other naked, so to speak," Brittain said from Texas.

"The plaintiffs realistically know that the state is not going to do as much as they want no matter how hard they push. But the state knows the plaintiffs won't go away no matter how slowly they proceed," said Brittain, explaining that settlement discussions began around two weeks ago. Neither side will say precisely what is being negotiated. But in the latest hearings on the long-running case, hearings that began in April, the plaintiffs outlined for the first time a remedy to end racial isolation of Hartford schoolchildren that they could accept.

By this September, six years after the 1996 court order, the state will have 37 interdistrict magnet schools and 13 charter schools aimed at reducing that racial isolation. But the Sheff plaintiffs returned to court this year to argue the state still was not moving quickly enough to comply with the order and that Hartford's schools were as segregated as ever. The plaintiffs' plan, drafted by Leonard B. Stevens, a national consultant who has worked on desegregation cases in cities around the country, calls for a gradual but dramatic increase in the number of slots for Hartford students in integrated magnet schools.

Currently, just under 1,200 minority children - about 5 percent of Hartford's student body - attend magnet schools or suburban schools through the state's Open Choice program, formerly known as Project Concern. Plaintiffs argued for an increase to about 6,900, or 30 percent, by 2005. By then, according to Stevens' plan, more than 3,000 white suburban students would be enrolled in Hartford magnet schools.

The plan would cost tens of millions of dollars. One estimate in a legal deposition for the case put construction costs for the magnet schools - which the state pays for fully - at $87 million. The state also helps to pay for magnet school operations. Brittain predicted that Aurigemma will approve a settlement quickly if one is put before her and that the plaintiffs may ask her to put her approval in the form of an order to give the agreement more legal heft. Then, it could require legislation, he said, particularly since any agreement is likely to require money.

"It's too soon to say what will be the outcome. It could be nothing," Brittain said. "But it's encouraging."

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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