July 13, 2007
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief
Two top Hartford officials urged state legislators Thursday to reject the latest Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation agreement, even as a top lawmaker remained skeptical about whether the settlement would have any effect in improving the bleak outlook for city schools.
Mayor Eddie Perez told members of the education committee that he fears the proposed settlement could lead to excessive construction and busing costs that his city could not afford; for his part, the city's school superintendent said the state lacks a comprehensive plan to encourage integration and improve academic performance.
Superintendent Steven Adamowski argued that without such a plan, the tentative settlement - which would require the state to spend millions of dollars over the next five years on magnet schools, charter schools and other programs to improve integration - should not be accepted.
"Are there going to be any more host magnets for Hartford?" Adamowski asked members of the education committee at the state Capitol complex. "Our frustration from this comes from not having a plan. ... The days of doing this on a piecemeal basis need to come to an end."
The previous four-year agreement in the Sheff case, which expired June 30, called for eight new magnet schools, including some highly touted as the best in the city. Some of those schools remain under construction, others are still being planned.
Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, the longtime co-chairman of the education committee, told Adamowski that he is still looking for improvements in Hartford's failing schools. As the committee's co-chairman for the past 11 years, Gaffey told Adamowski that he has dealt with five different Hartford superintendents who have delivered the same sub-par results.
"We have not seen any progress in any meaningful way in all those years," Gaffey said. "I truly hope what you've got planned will work. Members of this assembly are starting to turn a deaf ear" when Hartford continually asks for more money for the public schools.
Gaffey noted that Hartford receives far more education money than the other 168 cities and towns, but the city's test scores have not shown substantial improvement. Hartford received about $170 million in education cost-sharing grants last year, compared to less than $1 million for Avon, a wealthier community with fewer students.
Gaffey and other education committee members listened to objections raised by Adamowski and Perez to a settlement reached in May to extend the now-lapsed court-ordered deadline. The legislature received the settlement late in its regular spring session and did not act upon it. That failure prompted the Sheff plaintiffs to return to court earlier this month.
The legislature must approve the tentative settlement for it to take effect, and a vote could come at a special session on July 23. The city of Hartford is not required to approve the deal, but lawmakers said they want Hartford to be on board with such an important agreement that will directly impact the 24,000 children in the city's public schools.
The tentative agreement between the state and the Sheff plaintiffs calls for spending $112 million over the next five years for magnet, charter and vocational-technical schools, along with transportation and administrative costs. The settlement is the latest development in a lawsuit that was filed in 1989 on behalf of Milo Sheff and others in the Hartford schools.
Eighteen years later, Hartford school students remain overwhelmingly poor - 98 percent - and racially isolated - 95 percent non-white.
"Hartford is more racially isolated than it was when we started," Gaffey said. "Yet here we are. ... I am yet to be convinced that spending $112 million of taxpayers' dollars will yield much more of a result than what we've seen to date. Clearly, Hartford leads the league in money for education."
Perez testified that his city cannot handle the financial burdens that have been placed on it concerning the Sheff case. The city has still not been reimbursed for about $3.2 million in construction costs for one of the new magnet schools, and the city is also picking up some of the transportation costs for students attending the magnet schools.
Still, "Hartford does not intend to be an obstacle" to the Sheff goals, Perez said.
Rep. Jason Bartlett, a freshman Democrat from Bethel, told the Hartford officials that they should follow the lead of New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, who he said "is quite famous" for promoting his city's magnet schools, which consistently attract suburban students.
"All I can say is Hartford has to be part of the solution," Bartlett said. "You have to buy in. You have to believe in your system, and you have to believe in your product. That's not what I'm hearing. I have a problem with your level of commitment on this agreement."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at