State pushes to end court oversight of Hartford school desegregation

The Sport and Medial Sciences Academy, a Hartford magnet school. File Photo

The Sport and Medial Sciences Academy, a Hartford magnet school.

Nineteen years after the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered state officials to desegregate Hartford’s city schools and the courts assumed supervision of that effort, attorneys for the state told a judge Friday the time has come for the court’s role to end.

“The state knows it’s constitutional obligation,” Ralph Urban, assistant attorney general, told a Hartford Superior Court judge Friday. “The state, frankly, knows how to do what it needs to do to continue to improve the City of Hartford schools. We don’t need the plaintiffs to micromanage us.”

Just over half of the students who live in Hartford still attend segregated schools, meaning that 75 percent of the students enrolled in their schools are black or Hispanic.

That’s well short of the appropriate integration goal, said attorneys for the parents who sued the state in a landmark case known as Sheff vs. O’Neill.

“To walk away from court supervision when thousands of kids are not getting the education they deserve would be dereliction of duty,” said Martha Stone, the plaintiff’s attorney.

Providing almost half of Hartford’s students a seat in a diverse classroom has been expensive. The state’s main approach has been building new magnet schools in an effort to attract suburban white students. Over the last 10 years, the state has spent $1.4 billion to build magnet schools and renovate existing buildings, the state Department of Education reports. More than $140 million is spent each year to operate those schools.

As a result, 47.5 percent of Hartford students now attend integrated schools — up from single-digit percentages 10 years earlier.

Stone said the issue comes down to whether the state can be trusted to voluntarily provide diverse school settings for the nearly 10,000 city students still in segregated schools without court supervision.

“Honestly, who will stand up for them?” she asked.

A Connecticut Mirror review last year of student enrollment in districts across the state found that minority isolation in large cities has intensified over the years.

The Supreme Court order in the Sheff case to remove educational inequities caused by Hartford’s largely minority school population does not apply to other districts with high concentrations of minority students.

In Bridgeport, for example, the percentage of minority students in public schools has risen progressively from 51 percent in 1968, to 84 percent in 1988, to 91 percent in 2013.

Assistant Attorney General Urban — sitting next to the state’s education commissioner and near Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s chief counsel — said the state intends to provide students a quality education.

However, he was firm that the state would not pay to open any more magnet schools.

“There are 42, and we are not going to be building any more,” he said, pointing out that the votes to do so are not there in the legislature. The present one-year agreement with plaintiffs “barely” got through the General Assembly, he said.

State officials agreed in February to offer 1,325 more children living in Hartford seats in existing magnet or suburban public schools this school year.

Hartford Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger was surprised by the state’s argument to close the Sheff case.

“This is the first time you have mentioned that,” Berger said during a meeting with those involved. “Many of you are questioning the court’s authority.”

Berger also pointed out that the state is headed to court next month to defend itself in a separate lawsuit charging the state has underfunded education and failed in its constitutional obligation to provide all students with an adequate education.

The state has not filed a formal motion to end court involvement in the Sheff case, and Berger said he hoped it would not come to that.

“If I have to take the bench, I will. If I have to hold a hearing, I will. I am not sure we are there yet,” he said, and then looked at officials from the state and the attorneys for the plaintiffs. “Start talking to each other… If you can’t reach an agreement, come and see me.”

The attorneys for the state and plaintiffs met with a mediator earlier this year, and the state wanted to get a longer-term agreement that ends court involvement.

After Friday’s court session, the parties met behind closed doors but reported no developments.

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About Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline won two first prizes from the Education Writers Association for her work in 2012 – one in beat reporting for her overall education coverage, and the other in investigative reporting on a series of stories revealing questionable monetary and personnel actions taken by the Board of Regents for Higher Education. In 2016, she was a finalist in the EWA competition for single-topic coverage for her reporting on how schools are funded in Connecticut. Before coming to The Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for Southern Maryland Newspapers. She has also worked for Congressional Quarterly and the Toledo Free Press. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College. She and her husband, two sons and two dogs live in Hartford.