Published Online: April 23, 1997

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Conn. Bill To Seize Hartford Schools Passes

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Declaring that "the Hartford school district is in a state of crisis," the Connecticut legislature voted overwhelmingly last week to seize control of the state's largest school system.

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Under the bill, which streaked through both legislative chambers on April 16, the state will dissolve Hartford's elected school board and replace it with an appointed panel by June. Consisting of up to seven members appointed by the governor and state lawmakers, the new board of trustees will run the 24,000-student district for at least three years, with a possible two-year extension.

The takeover bill passed 27-9 in the Senate and 135-7 in the House, and Republican Gov. John G. Rowland pledged to sign it by week's end.

Despite the drastic nature of the measure, news of the takeover surprised almost no one familiar with the history of Hartford's struggle to turn its schools around. In fact, the action injected a dose of optimism into many parents, City Council members, and even some current school board members.

"Having state involvement and the political fortunes of the highest leaders in the state tied to performance of the school system is a good thing," said Ted Carroll, a member of the Hartford school board since 1989. "It's clear that people definitely wanted to move faster and further than we could go."

The Last Straw

With the legislature's action last week, Hartford joined a growing number of city school systems that have had to relinquish control in recent years, including such large districts as Cleveland and Newark, N.J. Earlier this month, the Maryland legislature approved a plan that will give the state a much greater say in the management of the Baltimore public schools. ("Plan Tying Increased Aid, State Control of Baltimore Schools Backed," April 16, 1997.)

The takeover of the Hartford schools is the boldest action yet taken in a long series of efforts to turn around a district that has been plagued by low student performance and accusations of mismanagement.

What many local residents and officials have said was the last straw came earlier this month when a regional accrediting body announced that Hartford Public High School--the district's flagship school and one of the oldest in the country--is likely to lose its accreditation.

But that news was only one of the latest and perhaps most demoralizing challenges the system has faced in recent years.

Early in 1996, an attempt to straighten out the district's operations with a private management company, Education Alternatives Inc., broke down and the school board ousted the contractor. ("Hartford Ousts EAI in Dispute Over Finances," Jan. 31, 1996.)

And the Connecticut Supreme Court in July handed down the final word on a 7-year-old desegregation case focusing on Hartford's schools: The state must remedy the great racial and ethnic isolation that exists between Hartford and its surrounding systems. ("Conn. Supreme Court Orders Desegregation for Hartford," Aug. 7, 1996.)

Since the court's ruling, the search for a solution to the system's problems has been a top priority for the state government. In recent months, consensus grew in the legislature that a takeover should be a central part of improving educational opportunities in the city.

Legislators opted for drastic intervention despite a plea from Hartford school board members for greater state involvement without dissolving the local board.

"We looked at the New Jersey model of takeover with them keeping in place the local board, and there seemed to be a fuzzy distribution of power," said Rep. Brian Mattiello, the ranking Republican on the joint education committee.

Union Contracts

The lawmakers wanted to leave no question about who was in control of the school system, he added. Referring to the new trustees, he said: "My job was to empower this board to diagnose the problem and find a solution."

The bill includes a provision that makes the appointed panel the new bargaining agent for the district. Its members would be empowered to reopen contract negotiations with the local teachers' union. In cases in which agreements cannot be reached with negotiators, the panel can sidestep union leaders and take issues directly to a vote of the local membership.

"We wish it weren't in there," said Cheryl Daniels, the president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers. "We believe the leadership does speak for the members."

Nonetheless, she said, the local union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, supported the takeover.

Broader Efforts

Although the takeover bill said little about additional money, it would direct about $20.5 million in state aid for capital improvements at Hartford Public High.

Though it has drawn the most attention, the bill is just one of several education measures likely to become law this year as the Connecticut legislature--in response to the court order--seeks to desegregate the state's districts and improve education. ("Desegregation Panel Offers 15 Proposals to Conn. Legislators," Jan. 29, 1997.)

Earlier this month, the joint education committee approved a series of measures to: allow parents more say in choosing their children's schools; increase support for charter and magnet schools; and expand early-childhood programs in urban areas.

"This is the first step," said Yvonne Duncan, a Hartford parent who also sat on a state education task force set up after last summer's supreme court decision. "But it's not the only thing that needs to happen."

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