Regional schools wonít fly, study says; state residents back desegregation but want local control
Natalie Missakian, Register Staff        July 21, 2000 

State residents support diverse schools in theory, but merging city and suburban school districts into a massive regional system may be too radical for tradition-bound Connecticut residents to embrace.

That was the conclusion reached after a series of 20 public forums held around the state to gauge support for the idea of regional school systems as a better way to meet a court order to integrate schools. 

The nonprofit Connecticut Center for School Change, which released its findings Thursday, proposes a large regional school district for Greater Hartford as a way to meet the court order in Sheff vs. O'Neill, which found Hartford schools unconstitutionally segregated. 

The group also proposed a hypothetical regional district for Greater New Haven encompassing 13 towns stretching from Ansonia to Guilford run by a single superintendent and regional school board and supported by a regionalized tax. 

Individual schools would be governed by small local councils controlled by teachers, parents and school administrators. 

Sponsors of the report acknowledge that many of the sentiments ó resistance to long bus rides, reluctance to give up local control, worries that the quality of their schools would suffer ó have dogged the stateís desegregation efforts for years. But they arenít giving up. 

As a result of the forums, the center is releasing a new proposal later this month that calls for dividing Hartford into neighborhood sub-regions and combining each sub-region with several neighboring towns. 

"The most compelling lesson I take from our process is that our schools in Connecticut will never be integrated without a court order faithfully enforced by a legislature and governor willing to exercise their constitutional obligation," said Gordon Bruno, executive director of the school reform organization. 

Many in the forums expressed a fear that sending students to schools outside their home districts and opening their doors to children from other towns would hurt the quality of their own childrenís schooling. 

City parents worried there would be few minority teachers if they moved their children to mostly white suburban schools. And in a state where people identify closely with their towns, many were also reluctant to give up their own school boards and superintendents. 

In New Haven forums, participants were more able to think regionally because of the cityís tradition of magnet schools that draw children from the suburbs, the report said. 

Still, New Haven residents were leery of discussing the plan because they feared consolidation would cost jobs.  Many in the black community have gained economic stability as employees of the school system, the report said. Residents of Bethany, Orange and Woodbridge are already living a regional experience with their high school, Amity Regional, and feared making the region larger would spark political infighting. 

Tom Murphy, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the report "confirms . . . a series of voluntary approaches and incentives may be the most effective strategy a state can take on something this difficult and controversial." 

Attorneys for the Sheff plaintiffs declined to comment, saying they hadnít seen the report.