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Conn. Board Nominees Fan Flames of Discontent

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At a time when attention has focused on the issue of diversity in Connecticut schools, Gov. John G. Rowland has fanned the flames with his nominees to the state school board.

The withdrawal this month of the most embattled of the Governor's nominees, Kay Wall, has not extinguished the fire.

Educators, lawmakers, and civic leaders have chastised Mr. Rowland for failing to promote racial balance on the board. Four of his original nominees are white, and the fifth is from Colombia.

If the legislature approves the nominations, the state's two largest minority groups--blacks and Puerto Ricans--will have no representation on the nine-member board.

Critics have also charged that two of the candidates have no business on the state board because they work in private schools.

Follows Controversial Ruling

The fuss over the nominations comes weeks after Governor Rowland upset minority residents by toasting with champagne a decision in Sheff v. O'Neill, a closely watched school-desegregation case in Hartford.

A judge ruled last month that the state was not responsible for rectifying the racial separation of minority and white students in that city and its suburbs. (See Education Week, 4/19/95.)

Despite the decision, the Governor had vowed to work toward voluntarily integrating the state's schools. But some educators took the recent nominations as a sign of tepid support for that goal.

"You want to have a board that's representative of the ethnic and racial diversity in the state, particularly as we're trying to work toward balance in the schools," said Robert F. Eagan, the president of the Connecticut Education Association. "The Governor just displayed an insensitivity to those issues."

But it was the Governor's support of Ms. Wall, a parent and activist from Greenwich, that caused the biggest stir.

No 'Fair Hearing'?

Ms. Wall played a big role in defeating a proposal last year to revamp the state's schools. In the process, she clashed with legislators, business leaders, and other backers of the performance-based plan, which she said would lower standards and undermine local control.

Marc Ryan, a spokesman for the Governor, said that Ms. Wall "never got a fair hearing."

Mr. Rowland made his picks based on "expertise in education," Mr. Ryan said, and Ms. Wall was as familiar with the terrain as anyone.

But an early count in the House showed too few votes for Ms. Wall's approval. Both houses must vote on nominations to the board, which has authority to appoint the state commissioner of education.

Ms. Wall said last week that her appointment was derailed by false information about her views.

"While I was talking about the issues, my opponents and the press were attempting to paint an unreal picture of who I was," she said.

While some observers said the withdrawal could deflect criticism of the remaining candidates, others predicted a tough battle ahead.

'Public Trust'

The state teachers' union and others are wary of Mr. Rowland's two nominations of educators from private schools.

Mr. Eagan said he fears those nominees, if approved, would be open to options such as school vouchers for students who want to attend private or parochial schools.

In recent years, more supporters of private schools have been elected or appointed to state boards, said Brenda Welburn, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

For example, two members of Alabama's state board have children enrolled in private schools.

Some state boards have limited authority over such regulatory issues as safety at private schools.

Although some board members from private education may support vouchers or other alternatives, that does not mean that private school teachers or administrators cannot serve the public good, said Peter Tacy, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools.

"It's absurd," Mr. Tacy said of the controversy over such appointments in his state. "These people are in a position of public trust."

"They should be able to serve without conflict of interest," he added.

Whatever the outcome of those nominations, the void left by Ms. Wall's withdrawal gives Governor Rowland a chance to improve the board's diversity, said Patrice McCarthy, the deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

"We hope that now that he has the opportunity to nominate someone else," she added, "he'll seize the chance to remedy that."

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