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Hartford Council Seeks State Help in Running Schools

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After an hour of impassioned pleas from parents fed up with the Hartford, Conn., schools, the city council last week asked the mayor to declare a state of emergency and request state assistance in overhauling the district.

But whether Mayor Michael P. Peters would take such action, and what kind of role the state might play in the 24,000-student district, remained unclear.

The chronically low-performing Hartford schools have been in turmoil since January, when the school board ended the district's management contract with a private company, Education Alternatives Inc. of Minneapolis. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1996.)

Superintendent Eddie Davis then resigned to take another job. Nicholas LaRosa, an assistant superintendent in the district, took over last week as the acting superintendent.

"We want some action taken," said David McDonald, a parent activist involved with the group Educate Our Children Now, which urged the city council to pass the resolution. "We need to find a solution to our bureaucratic gridlock."

The resolution, passed on an 8-1 vote, calls on the mayor to declare a state of emergency and to ask Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland to "use the emergency powers of the state" to make fundamental change in the schools.

Ted J. Carroll, the vice president of the school board, call the resolution "a political move" growing out of a budget dispute between the city and the school board.

"We remain very focused on our school-reform agenda," Mr. Carroll said. "We're moving forward."

Mayor Peters is expected to meet this week with the city's lawyer to determine whether he has the legal authority to declare a state of emergency.

'A Wake-up Call'

Mayors normally declare states of emergency to deal with riots or natural disasters, not with troubled government agencies. In Hartford, the Court of Common Council controls the school budget and recently has called for cuts.

Mayor Peters "agrees that the schools are in critical condition," said Paul D. Shipman, the executive assistant to the mayor. "The resolution should serve as a wake-up call for all parties involved."

Connecticut has a strong tradition of local control of schools, noted Thomas W. Murphy, a spokesman for the state education department. In addition, state legislators have been working to reduce the mandates placed on the state's 166 school boards.

Rather than seek powers for a heavy-handed takeover procedure, Mr. Murphy said, the department has been trying to forge "a focused support system" for Connecticut's urban districts.

Hartford, the state's largest school system, consistently ranks last in student achievement.

The education department has provided materials and training to help the city's teachers prepare their students to pass the Connecticut Mastery Test, Mr. Murphy said.

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