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Settlement Possible In School Desegregation Suit

October 9, 2002
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, The Hartford Courant

The two sides in Connecticut's landmark school desegregation lawsuit could be closing in on a settlement as negotiations reach a critical stage, officials said today.

Parties in the Sheff vs. O'Neill case will meet again next week to try to reach a deal that could lead to a significant expansion of magnet schools and urban-suburban student transfer programs in the Hartford region.

"We're at a make-or-break point," Mark Stapleton, the state Department of Education's chief legal officer, said as the state Board of Education held a brief closed meeting Wednesday morning to get an update on negotiations. "We're getting close to a decision on whether a deal is feasible."

The settlement talks, which began earlier this year, are the first serious out-of-court discussions aimed at resolving the dispute since the case was filed 13 years ago.

Six years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sheff plaintiffs and ordered the state to reduce racial imbalance in Hartford's mostly black and Hispanic public schools. However, the plaintiffs returned to court two years ago and again earlier this year to contend that the state legislature has not done enough to comply with that ruling.

The state has spent millions of dollars in recent years building new racially integrated magnet schools in the Hartford region and throughout Connecticut, but black and Hispanic children continue to make up the overwhelming majority of students in Hartford and other major cities.

Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma was expected to rule on the case as early as this fall, but the two sides are expected to ask her for another extension of a deadline to file legal briefs while settlement talks continue. Although neither side will discuss details of the talks publicly, the negotiations are centered around a proposal by plaintiffs to create new integrated magnet schools in Hartford and open additional spots in suburban schools for city children over the next four years.

Aside from the potential cost of building new schools, the two sides are believed to be discussing matters such as deadlines, enrollment goals and transportation arrangements.

"We went into this with a 50-50 shot" of reaching an agreement, state Education Commissioner Theodore S. Sergi said after briefing the state Board of Education on the talks. "I still think there is [an even chance], and we're close."

While officials remain hopeful, there is no guarantee that the matter will not wind up back in Aurigemma's courtroom.

"If something is going to happen, it's going to happen soon,” said Dennis D. Parker of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a lawyer for the Sheff plaintiffs. "I'd like to think we can come up with something. We've exchanged a couple of proposals. I'm not going to say there isn't some distance between us because there is."

The Sheff case surfaced two weeks ago as an issue in the governor’s race when gubernatorial challenger Bill Curry said the dispute could be resolved easily over lunch. Gov. John G. Rowland shot back that Curry’s remark “shows the lack of depth and understanding of the significant problems we're facing in . . .urban education."

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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