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Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland announced a $45 million settlement last week in the 14-year-old Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation lawsuit. Rowland outlined a four-year plan that includes specific goals and timetables for increasing racial integration in Hartford’s public schools. Since the lawsuit was filed, black and Hispanic children have accounted for more than 90 percent of Hartford’s student population. The tentative agreement will add two new magnet schools to the Hartford region each year of the four-year plan. It also expands school choice options to double the current participation level in Hartford and its suburbs to 1,600 students by 2007. The compromise reached between the state and plaintiffs adds grants for innovative programs, such as after-school, summer school, weekend institutes and college-high school programs. It also includes ways to measure progress and provides a process to develop and gauge new plans that exceed the four years. “This is an important step forward in addressing equal educational opportunity in our public schools, not only in what we have been able to accomplish, but also in how we have achieved this goal — by working with the plaintiffs to achieve a meaningful agreement,” Rowland said. The plan still needs the support of the General Assembly and Superior Court Judge Julia Aurigemma, who presided over this phase of the litigation. The settlement falls short of the original vision of the plaintiffs, which included the possible redrawing of boundary lines between city and suburban schools and the creation of regional school districts — an idea that drew vehement opposition in both the suburbs and the legislature. The settlement will cost the state $4.5 million in 2003-04, $9 million in the next fiscal year, $13.5 million and $18 million over the final two years of the plan. State Education Commissioner Theodore Sergi described the negotiations as a very involved, six-month process. He praised the plaintiffs for “their hard work, commitment, and willingness to compromise.” The lead plaintiff, Milo Sheff, who was 10 years old when the lawsuit was filed, said Wednesday that he was not optimistic about the proposed agreement. “We done heard it before,” said Sheff, who turns 24 today. “Let’s see some action. Four years is a really long time. “They say what they’re going to do and they don’t do it,” said Sheff, who said he worked as a concert emcee and was trying to get his music and video business off the ground. “Kids are not benefiting from this whole nonchalant attitude toward solving this problem.” Sheff said he thought it was important that any agreement to settle the lawsuit include racial integration at the elementary school level. The Sheff case has stirred heated debate for more than a decade, raised anxiety over the possibility of court-ordered desegregation and put a spotlight on stubborn patterns of racial segregation and poverty in Connecticut’s big cities — problems that afflict urban schools nationwide. The inclusion of specific racial goals in the proposed settlement had been a key objective for plaintiffs, who returned to court last year and accused the state of dragging its feet in complying with a 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling. The proposed agreement includes the opening of several new integrated magnet schools in Hartford, the expansion of a program that allows Hartford parents to enroll their children in predominantly white suburban schools, and more support for after-school and summer-exchange programs for city and suburban students, the newspaper said. If approved, the plan would resolve a case that led to nearly half a billion dollars in new regional magnet schools and widespread discussion over how to promote integration in the mostly black and Hispanic schools in Connecticut’s major cities. The cost of the settlement plan has not been revealed, but it will have to fit into a state budget that already is under enormous strain. The deficit for this fiscal year is estimated at $650 million; next year is estimated to be $1.5 billion in the red. Marc S. Ryan, Gov. Rowland’s budget director, testified last spring that he feared a court order “would have major, major, major repercussions” and could cripple the state budget. One possibility mentioned last year by plaintiffs was that the state could offset some of the cost by shifting state aid among school districts, allowing the money to follow students. Civil rights groups filed the case on behalf of 17 schoolchildren in 1989, alleging that the richest state in the country had allowed Hartford to run an impoverished, struggling, racially isolated school system. Seven years ago the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the state to reduce racial imbalance in Hartford’s schools, but did not outline a specific remedy or timetable. The court found that racial segregation violated Hartford children’s rights and the state constitution, saying: “Every passing day denies these children their constitutional right to a substantially equal educational opportunity.” The plaintiffs brought the case back into court twice, most recently last spring, when they outlined before Aurigemma a specific plan for additional magnet schools and the expansion of a suburban school-choice program for Hartford parents. That plan, the first remedy ever outlined in such detail by the plaintiffs, said programs should establish a goal of reaching 30 percent of Hartford’s schoolchildren after four years — up from an estimated 5 percent last year. As testimony wrapped up, however, Aurigemma hinted that she might not approve either the state’s or the plaintiffs’ position. Within weeks of that hearing, representatives of both sides began negotiating a settlement, focusing on voluntary means such as magnet schools.

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