Hartford Asks E.A.I. To Help Run Its District

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The Hartford, Conn., school board has voted to begin negotiating a contract for the district to be managed by Education Alternatives Inc.

Following months of rancorous debate, the board voted 6 to 3 last month to reject other proposals for the contract management of the 26,000-student district and to immediately begin hammering out a deal with E.A.I.

Last week, a team of district and city officials met with company representatives in hopes of settling on a contract that will allow the Minneapolis-based for-profit concern to start work next week.

"They can help us better manage our resources so we can put more resources back into the classroom,'' said Stephanie S. Lightfoot, one of four board members on the negotiating team.

Even board members who had opposed the contract discussions appeared resigned to seeing the publicly traded company enter the district.

But William E. Meagher, the board president, pledged to oppose E.A.I.'s effort to gain full control over the district's budget.

The city finance director and other city officials also objected to the company's request, charging that such an arrangement would violate state law and the city charter.

As E.A.I. continued last week to ask for full budgetary powers, all sides in the negotiations predicted that financial control would remain a big sticking point.

Meanwhile, the Hartford Federation of Teachers--which has strongly opposed the contract--said last week it would file a suit challenging the process by which the board selected E.A.I. and rejected management proposals submitted by the union and a second company.

Laywers for the competing company, Public Educational Services Inc. of Woodbridge, Va., also have challenged the board's selection process as biased toward E.A.I.

Hartford's moves toward hiring a private company to help manage the whole district follow the Minneapolis school board's decision last December to contract with another company, Public Strategies Group Inc., for districtwide management. (See related story, this page.)

'Living Within Its Resources'

Before its July 22 decision to enter contract talks, the Hartford board spent five months being courted by Education Alternatives over the protests of some parents and teachers.

Both E.A.I. and the union have waged sophisticated public-relations campaigns, with the Connecticut Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers coming to their local affiliate's aid. Through it all, a six-member majority of the board continued to lean toward bringing in the company.

The day before the vote, Eddie L. Davis, the district's acting superintendent, sent board members a letter raising numerous questions and urging them to hold off. He argued that the company lacked a track record, would bring in new bureaucracy, and had gained no acceptance from the unions.

Moreover, Mr. Davis contended, the company's offer to invest in the Hartford schools would do nothing to help the system "understand living within its resources.''

John T. Golle, the chief executive officer of E.A.I., countered that the district needed to bring in his company precisely because the school system had not learned to live within its means.

The board majority appeared to agree, noting in its resolution authorizing the contract talks that it wished to provide staff members with a stable work environment "without the annual fear of budget cuts, concessions, and layoffs.''

In moving to entrust the district's management to E.A.I., the board noted that it was encouraged by its accounting firm's positive assessment of the company's financial health.

Investment Required

Although the board resolution left most of the details of the contract to the negotiating team, it set certain "baseline requirements'' for an agreement.

Education Alternatives must invest large sums of money in the district--financing new technology, building repairs, and other improvements--and must recoup its investment from the savings that it generates, the board said.

The board also said the company must be involved in all 32 of the district's schools and work at the direction of the superintendent.

The board said it would like the company's management role to include maintenance, purchasing of supplies, and security, as well as oversight of transportation, food contracts, and information-management systems. It asked that the company play a consulting role in managing construction projects, advising on staffing, providing staff training, helping monitor and improve employee accountability, and helping improve parental involvement and secure new grant money.

The chief question left to be resolved by negotiators is the share of the district's budget that will flow through E.A.I.'s hands.

Mr. Meagher, the board president, who is not a member of the negotiating team, expressed confidence that E.A.I. will not be allowed to oversee payroll and fringe-benefits spending, which accounts for most of the budget.

'More Disposable Income'

But Mr. Golle argued that his company needs to have control of the entire $237 million budget, which includes $171 million allocated by the city as well as benefit, insurance, and pension funds.

Hartford's financial ills, he said, are systemic and due largely to the fact its spending on labor and benefits is rising faster than revenue. Only by managing the entire budget, he said, can E.A.I. have a long-term impact on district finances "so that it has more disposable income to spend on the students.''

To reassure those who fear entrusting such large sums of money to his firm, Mr. Golle has proposed having E.A.I. advance the school system its budget for each month, with the company and city settling up at the month's end.

Despite its progress in Hartford, E.A.I. learned last month that it would not be getting a contract anytime soon with another prospective client, the Portsmouth, Va., district. Officials there decided to discontinue consideration of privatizing some schools.

Vol. 13, Issue 40

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