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Two Regional Desegregation Plans Rejected in Conn.

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Some local leaders in Connecticut have rejected plans to reduce racial isolation in their schools, raising questions about the direction of the state's voluntary school-desegregation effort.

Eleven regions created under the state's 1993 school-desegregation law were expected to come up with optional programs for bringing together urban and suburban students.

Last month, the regions submitted their ideas to state education officials, who praised their plans for magnet schools, teacher and student exchanges, and multicultural programs. (See Education Week, 11/09/94.)

The local government and school board in each town were scheduled to vote on the proposals by Dec. 1. There is no penalty for missing the deadline, and state officials said they probably would not know the outcome of all the voting until this week.

But local sources say that two regions--which include the cities of Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Stamford, some of the largest and most diverse in the state--could not muster the votes to pass their desegregation plans by last week.

Some proponents of the law have accused skeptics of spreading misconceptions about the proposals that may have led to their rejection in some communities. A number of critics claimed the plans would require widespread busing or would cost more money than the state has to offer.

The local disagreements have added to an already tense atmosphere in the state over desegregation. Residents also are awaiting the outcome of Sheff v. O'Neill, a Hartford school-desegregation lawsuit that could have implications for districts throughout Connecticut.

The plaintiffs in the case--the inspiration for the recent law--contend that the state has failed to prevent widespread racial disparities between urban and suburban schools.

Next month, the state will also undergo a political transformation, as Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.--the voluntary-desegregation law's most vocal supporter--leaves office. Mr. Weicker, a former Republican U.S. senator who won the governorship as an independent, will be replaced by John G. Rowland, a conservative Republican who has revealed little of his intentions for the state's schools.

A 'Feel Good' Plan?

Some local officials said they feared that if they approved the desegregation plans, they would be surrendering control of their schools to a new regional bureacracy. Others said they expected costs for training and transportation to soar.

In the region that includes Bridgeport, seven out of eight governing bodies had rejected the plan by last week--despite the approval of the city's leaders. For the plans to pass, a majority of the participating towns must endorse them. The towns voting yes also must together represent a majority of the population in the region.

David H. Parkins, a city alderman in Shelton, part of the Bridegport region, said that "no one behind the plan could identify anything that would improve the quality of education," the primary goal of the law.

"This was purely about desegregation and racial balance," Mr. Shelton added.

The region just south of Mr. Shelton's also rejected its plan. In that case, however, the two largest cities--Stamford and Norwalk--were opposed to it.

"It was characterized more as a feel-good proposal than one that came forth with a plan of action," said Ed Bowers, the president of Norwalk's city council, which represents a diverse population.

He said some of the ideas in the plan resembled existing programs.

"The general feeling was: 'Why take these students and transport them to other areas without meaningful programs?'" Mr. Bowers added.

Other regions appeared close to approving their plans last week.

The Hartford area already had enough votes to guarantee its plan's approval, said Carole Mulready, the coordinator of the regional forum that made recommendations for reducing racial isolation in those schools.

Hartford Moving Ahead

Local leaders endorsed the plan in about a dozen cities and towns in that region, including Hartford, where the school-desegregation lawsuit holds out the possibility of a court order. But the plan raised hackles even in some of the towns that approved it.

In Windsor, there was talk among residents of contesting the city's vote in favor of the proposal, one local official said. A taxpayers' group there feared that new programs would require tax hikes.

And in Ellington, residents defeated the proposal by bringing it to a public referendum, in lieu of the local government's vote. A few other towns in the Hartford area also rejected it.

"If towns rise up against diversity it sends the [Sheff] plaintiffs a very clear message: that we can't even pass a voluntary plan," John Berky, a member of that region's forum, remarked.

A spokesman for the state education department stressed that there are no penalties for those regions that do not enact plans. But the state has set aside nearly $80 million in the 1995-96 budget to implement the plans.

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