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For-Profit Company To Run Hartford Schools

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The Hartford, Conn., public school system has turned itself over to a private company. The unprecedented agreement, approved by the Hartford school board in October, entrusts the for-profit, Minneapolis-based company Education Alternatives Inc. with managing the district's 32 schools and its annual budget of some $200 million.

"We are absolutely convinced that the current way of operating our schools does not work and cannot work,'' said Edward Carroll, a school board member who voted for the contract. The agreement, he said, will bring the district "some additional talent and resources and skills.'' He predicted that Hartford's pact with EAI "will be a model for the rest of the country.''

The legality of the contract, however, remains in question. Pedro Segarra, the city attorney, refused to add his signature, which he said was legally required. According to Segarra, the agreement violates the Hartford charter. In several areas, he explained, it gives the company financial powers that belong to city officials. The City Council, which opposes the contract, threatened to withhold the funds the district needs to pay the company.

School board members argue that Segarra's signature is not needed on the contract and that the city is obligated to provide the payments under state law. At press time, Mayor Michael Peters was seeking to broker a compromise between the City Council and the school board. Meanwhile, John Golle, chief executive officer of EAI, said he considers the contract "signed, sealed, and delivered.''

The agreement, which had been tentatively approved in August [See "Current Events,'' October], is the first in the nation to entrust all aspects of a school system's operations, including its budget, to a private firm. The Minneapolis school board last year granted a less extensive contract to Public Strategies Group Inc., a private consulting firm in St. Paul. Under that agreement, the company's president, Peter Hutchinson, serves as superintendent but does not control the budget and leaves most educational tasks to school officials.

Denis Doyle, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said the medium size and diverse demographics of Hartford make it a near-perfect setting for the experiment in private management. "If you were a researcher, and you wanted to pick a city to try it in, you would be hard-pressed to do better than Hartford,'' Doyle said.

The agreement provoked sharp criticism from the nation's two major teachers' unions, both of which have fought to keep EAI from gaining contracts. Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, said the company has done nothing in Baltimore, where it has managed nine schools since 1992 [See "Bullish on Schools,'' April 1993], to merit running an entire district. School boards and superintendents elsewhere, he said, have been able to address their problems "without lining the pockets of shareholders.'' Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the contract "a scandal in the making.''

Golle of EAI said the Hartford agreement calls for him to honor all existing union contracts but allows him to renegotiate labor agreements when they come up for renewal. He said he has no plans to significantly cut back on the district work force.

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