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EAI School Contract Pits Candidates in Hartford Races

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In Hartford, Conn., the candidates for the school board and various city offices are wearing one of two labels. They're either pro-EAI or anti-EAI.

Whether the candidates like it or not, the upcoming school board election has a single defining issue: the city's groundbreaking contract with Education Alternatives Inc., a for-profit company, to manage its public schools.

The bitter debate over the contract has led to one of the hardest-fought school board races the city has seen in decades.

It also has exposed incumbent Mayor Michael P. Peters and other city officials involved with the EAI agreement to intense opposition from the city's labor unions.

A victory in the Nov. 7 elections by school board candidates opposed to the contract would likely mean the end of the 24,000-student district's closely watched experiment with school privatization.

The nine-member board is currently split 7-2 in favor of the contract. But each of the five seats up for election is held by an EAI supporter.

"If we can get our three candidates in in the general election, we will have the five votes we need to ask EAI to leave," said Cheryl S. Daniels, the president of the 2,000-member Hartford Federation of Teachers, which has helped organize a slate called Children First and has contributed much of its $20,000 war chest.

The school board primaries last week narrowed the field from 20 candidates to 10. Each of the board members is elected at large.

A slate of candidates who support the contract held its own against Children First and another slate of EAI foes. But the contract's supporters may have been spared by the simple fact that their opponents split the anti-EAI vote.

The primary knocked out half of the candidates opposed to the contract, leaving voters with a much clearer choice between friends and foes of the Minneapolis-based company.

Regardless of the election results next month, the contract between Hartford and Education Alternatives may be in danger anyway, because of an ongoing dispute between city and company officials over control of the school system's budget. (See Education Week, May 24, 1995.)

Both sides have threatened to terminate the contract if the disagreement cannot be resolved. They continued their negotiations last week, after the school board tabled a motion by its two anti-EAI members to end the agreement after serving the required 90 days' notice.

A Crowded Field

Of the 20 candidates in last week's nonpartisan school board primaries, 16 ran for four open four-year terms; and four were in the race for a single two-year seat.

As of last week, results were in for nine of the 10 open slots. The margin in deciding the last primary winner in that race was so small that the votes were being recounted.

Of the nine slots for which results were available, candidates from the Children First slate, organized by the teachers' union and an anti-privatization group of parents and teachers called Citizens for Better Schools, won in three.

A candidate from the Hartford Issues Committee, another anti-privatization slate organized by the two anti-EAI school board members, also won.

That slate, which has raised about $25,000, was supported by the unions representing the school system's administrators and custodians.

In the undecided race, another candidate from that slate, Celestino Jimenez, appeared to have narrowly beaten out an incumbent school board member, Aida L. Morales.

Meanwhile, four of five candidates from a slate of contenders who support EAI clearly stayed in the running.

Thelma E. Dickerson, the school board's president and a candidate for the two-year term, led the mayor-backed group, which included Ms. Morales.

Called the hope slate, for Hartford's Organized Parents for Education, the group has defended the relationship with EAI. Its members have sought to characterize the group as supportive of not just the experiment with privatization, but all school reforms. It has raised about $6,000.

Three of the four hope-slate victors were the primary's top vote-getters in an election where just over 10 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls.

Leaders of the rival slates last week said the anti-privatization candidates split the vote, and predicted they would fare much better in the general election.

They noted that the hope candidates garnered only about 40 percent of the vote.

Opponents of EAI were also buoyed by a union survey of 800 Hartford residents this month that found about 60 percent opposed the contract.

Victory for the Mayor

In last month's Democratic primary for city offices--which is key in a city where Democrats typically outnumber Republicans more than 8 to 1--Mayor Peters and his slate of council candidates trounced a rival slate called Democrats for Justice. The mayor and his slate won despite opposition from the teachers' union and other unions.

The rival slate's candidate for mayor was Elizabeth Horton Sheff, a city council member and the mother of the lead plaintiff in the city's ongoing school-desegregation lawsuit.

Following the primary, Democrats for Justice formed the independent Pro-Hartford Party. The group has announced plans to run the same slate in the Nov. 7 general election.

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