Hartford Seeks State Help in Running Schools

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Officials in Hartford, Conn., last week invited the state to assume a greater role in running their city's troubled school district. But they also urged the state to reject a legislative proposal to disband the local school board.

The pitch came as the state legislature's joint education committee considered several bills aimed at reducing racial isolation and improving educational quality in city school systems around the state.

In outlining Hartford's proposal, Mayor Michael P. Peters asked lawmakers to appoint a panel to oversee the district's financial management for up to five years. The panel, he said, would approve the district's budget and labor contracts, and could reopen existing contracts.

"It's a starting point," state Rep. Cameron C. Staples, the education committee's co-chairman, said of the proposal. "I don't think they provided a lot of details."

The proposal, which was endorsed by the Hartford City Council and the school board as well as the mayor, represents a "moderate course" toward state intervention in the school system, said board President Donald V. Romanik. Student test scores in Hartford are among the lowest in the state despite the district's relatively high spending levels.

Under the plan, the school board and superintendent would still set the schools' academic course while surrendering financial management to the review board.

In the area of academic improvement, Mr. Romanik said lawmakers should give the district's new superintendent, Patricia Daniel, a chance to work with the state to implement recommendations offered last fall by state Commissioner of Education Theodore S. Sergi. ("Conn. Officials Call for Team Effort To Revamp Hartford's Ailing Schools," Nov. 13, 1996.)

"One thing residents of Hartford are saying is that they will have no input," Mr. Romanik said. "This at least maintains that local accountability."

But some lawmakers said they were skeptical that the proposed division of authority could work.

"I see in that the potential for a stalemate," Mr. Staples said.

Takeover Bill Pending

The Hartford proposal came after lawmakers introduced a bill this month to allow the state to dissolve local school boards in districts judged to be in crisis. To replace the school board in such cases, the governor and legislature would appoint an oversight panel of state and local officials with the authority to appoint its own superintendent.

Rep. Staples, who supports the measure, said he hoped that by including local officials on the oversight panels, Hartford could avoid the acrimony that state intervention has spawned elsewhere. ("Ill Will Comes With Territory in Takeovers," June 12, 1996.) In New Jersey, for example, where the state has taken over its three largest districts, local officials have no say in naming the superintendents.

"We don't think the state should be taking over completely," said Mr. Staples, a Democrat from New Haven. "We're saying the state should set up another local/state board to make decisions for a while."

The 'Ultimate Authority'

After hearing the Hartford officials' plan, the lawmaker said he would consider the idea of keeping the local school board intact while the state intervenes. But, he added, "if the board of education remains, then it's got to be clear that the review board is the ultimate authority during that period."

Nonetheless, Mr. Staples added that he was pleased that Hartford officials had acknowledged that the state needs to play a larger role in their district.

"They did all say, 'We do think it's time for some state intervention,' " he said last week. "Now it's a question of how to do it right, not whether to do it.''

The state-intervention bill is one of several measures intended to address last summer's Sheff v. O'Neill decision, in which the state supreme court ordered lawmakers to reduce the racial and ethnic isolation affecting the 24,500-student Hartford district. ("Conn. Supreme Court Orders Desegregation for Hartford," Aug. 7, 1996.)

To that aim, other bills introduced this month would tie state school construction aid to whether projects reduce racial isolation; allow students from Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport to attend schools in neighboring districts; and require districts to offer intensive reading programs in the summer for students who can't read by the end of 1st grade.

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