Magnet School City board thwarted the will of most West End parents
By RAND COOPER
April 19, 2012
The proposed $32 million magnet grade school on the former campus of the Hartford College for Women would have been a great asset for Hartford's West End neighborhood, yet it was unanimously rejected last week by the city's planning and zoning commission. And I'm not sure how it happened.
Last summer the West End Civic Association formed a committee to evaluate the school plan, which was put forward by the Capital Region Education Council. One benefit loomed especially large. Since its conversion to a magnet under the Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation settlement, Noah Webster School — long the West End's neighborhood school — has had half its seats earmarked for suburban pupils, so neighborhood kids often can't get in. The plan for the new school reserved half its Hartford seats for neighborhood youngsters, and it included the whole West End, a huge boost to the largely African American and Latino southern part of the neighborhood. In addition, the plan offered the facilities of the proposed school as community amenities — amphitheater, gym, meeting spaces, all free of charge — while restoring the campus's historic buildings to pristine condition.
Our committee held many meetings to air concerns about bus parking, traffic, setback distances and so on. CREC altered the plan in response to our concerns. Ultimately, by a vote of 15-3, the civic association's board approved the plan, citing "the need for additional educational opportunities for West End children; the desirability of renovation of a neglected property in accord with the tenets of historic preservation; and the value of the property as a neighborhood resource and gathering place."
The zoning board's task was to determine whether the proposal "is compatible with the Plan of Conservation and Development." While Hartford's plan promotes residential over institutional uses, this property had been a school since 1957 and has had a temporary CREC magnet school for three years. As for conversion to residential use, developers consider the likelihood minuscule.
The school plan, furthermore, was expressly compatible with other major priorities of the city plan: promoting education to boost community well-being; expanding preschool; linking school facilities to communities; preserving Hartford's historic "cultural treasures;" and creating sustainable buildings.
Despite this clear compatibility, however, and the support of the civic association and an array of people from across the West End, the proposal failed to gain even one vote. How is that possible? The civic association also serves as the Neighborhood Revitalization Zone committee, which is supposed to have a powerful say in such decisions. Was our research and deliberation over many months a waste of time? Opponents argued that the zone change would set a dangerous precedent for future requests. But the commission can decide individual cases on their merits — and listening to the NRZ, instead of ignoring it, would help.
I don't know how many zoning commissioners came to the meeting open-minded and prepared to listen; one burst out, just before the vote, with a series of questions — "Who owns this property, anyway?" and "You mean we're busing kids in from the suburbs?" — suggesting little grasp of issues that had been discussed for four hours. The commissioners did seem to listen to a group of residents from the well-heeled streets adjacent to the campus, who turned out with a lawyer to oppose the school.
For months this group stirred exaggerated fears of the school's impact on property values, traffic and the residential character of the neighborhood. At the zoning meeting they labored to paint the civic association as unrepresentative of the neighborhood. But in my view they're the ones who don't represent the West End. Not, at any rate, the West End of middle-class and working families who want to send their kids to school here — and who, unlike so many of the opponents, actually send their kids to public schools.
In the end, the conversation got commandeered by a NIMBY mind set of No, No, No — and what got lost was the recognition of the boon this school would have been. So, CREC has moved on, and another neighborhood — likely another city — will get the benefit of a beautiful, well-run school. "Good public schools are oxygen for neighborhoods," CREC's chief, Bruce Douglas, said at the zoning meeting. The loss of that oxygen, and the peremptory way the plug was pulled, has left many in this neighborhood gasping.
Rand Cooper, a writer, is co-chairman of the West End Civic Association's education committee.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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