February 7, 2007
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer
Forget for a moment the hubris, the political posturing and Eddie Perez's gross miscalculation of his "strong mayor" authority.
In trying to shove the Pathways to Technology Magnet School into an ill-suited site, Perez magnified arguments by plaintiffs in the Sheff vs. O'Neill desegregation lawsuit that the state is largely in noncompliance with an agreement to build eight magnet schools over four years at an annual cost of $45 million.
Lost in the fallout from the mayor's latest display of audacity is that the state is ultimately accountable for achieving the remedies outlined in the 2003 Sheff settlement. So far, the state has not met the goals. It has relegated that responsibility to Hartford - which contributed to the lawsuit's being filed in the first place.
The state shouldn't have the luxury of being able to reject a school site without offering an option. With a new state education commissioner on the way and a new Hartford schools chief, what better time to redefine a new working relationship? Here goes:
The state now controls site selection for Sheff-related magnet schools. Hartford would play a role, but not be the "decider," to borrow a Bushism. Once the schools are built, then control is passed to the city.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's 11th-hour reaffirmation about deed restrictions excluding a school at Broad Street and Farmington Avenue happened too late in the process. By all accounts, Perez was warned repeatedly that he needed to get the restrictions changed. No one, however, told him in writing that the site was definitively off the table.
With the state playing a stronger role in the process, Perez's arrogance could have been put in check earlier. Other sites such as the under-utilized Barnard Brown School on Main Street, which is well under its 600-student capacity, could have been strongly considered.
"What we're starting to hear now is, what other things can the state do to get these things off the ground?" said Bill Magnotta, the state's program manager for interdistrict magnet schools.
Stronger state control of the site-selection process would also include a widening of options. Hartford is 18 square miles. Land is scarce. Since Sheff vs. O'Neill is a remedy to promote integrated schools, why not put more magnets in the suburbs, near the city border if possible? East Hartford, Bloomfield, Glastonbury and Windsor are towns that have magnets or temporary magnets.
Talks will begin Friday about an appropriate site for Capital Preparatory Magnet High School. If the state is not careful, a Pathways-like botched process could play out. Meanwhile, it's back to square one for Pathways, now housed in a shopping plaza in Windsor.
My niece is a freshman at Pathways, so I have more than a passing interest in all this. The proposed site Perez pushed is fraught with four-lane traffic congestion and minimal land buffers. A school evacuation there would be a mess. But an architect's rendering of the proposed school is stunning in its beauty and character. I'm not convinced that if Perez had a better working relationship with legislative leaders that he couldn't have promoted the architect's drawings, reiterated that safety concerns were being addressed and negotiated his way to amending the deed restriction.
Instead, we watched the mayor's power play fizzle. And we're left with this reminder to the state: Phase I of the Sheff agreement expires this year.
Another court-mediated edict might not be so forgiving.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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