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Groton leaders struggle to balance race – and budgets – as population changes

Groton has been trying in vain to meet state racial balance requirements for its schools since 2000, but now city leaders have a new idea: build one giant middle school. The effort – known as the Groton 2020 plan – comes with a price-tag of $191.7 million. With up to 80 percent of construction costs being paid for by the state, the Groton 2020 plan is a prime example of how court-imposed racial balance guidelines are forcing districts to build new schools and costing towns and the state millions. Yet, despite the money spent many remain dissatisfied with the results.

At issue is the 1996 Sheff v. O’Neil ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court that determined the unintentional racial segregation in schools is unconstitutional. The suit sought to address racial disparities in the Hartford public school system. The court’s decision made school districts responsible for having a racial balance that matched its population. For many Connecticut towns this is not a problem. According to state law a school is considered imbalanced if the proportion of minority students “falls outside of a range from 25 percentage points less to 25 percentage points more than the comparable proportion for the school district.”

Trouble for Groton began in 2000 when the Eastern Point Elementary School needed to be replaced because of health and safety issues. Eastern Point had been a neighborhood school serving many minority families in an area with a high percentage of students living in subsidized housing.

Groton built the Catherine Kolnaski Elementary School but the Connecticut State Department of Education would not allow children to attend the new school until Groton had developed a plan to balance the racial inequalities. The children were forced to continue attending the broken down Eastern Point school from September 2007 to January 2008.

Groton’s solution to the problem was to turn the Catherine Kolnaski School in to an “intra-magnet” school. “That actually proved to be very successful,” said Michael Graner, superintendent of the Groton school district.

But only five years later, the brand new school was racially imbalanced again.

While the school district was trying to achieve racial balance, Groton saw a massive demographic shift. According to Graner, the minority share of the population in Groton has grown from 24 percent to 43 percent district wide.

Areas like Groton present a unique and difficult situation. The school district includes the affluent Mystic area, The Naval Submarine Base New London, and the city of Groton which is one of the poorest in the state. “There are three very distinct communities in Groton,” said Graner.

“Here’s what’s happening state-wide,” said Graner. “The school age population for suburban areas are going down, middle class people are not having as many children. But the population of urban areas is actually increasing.” This has made attempts to balance racial populations more difficult. “One side of town, the population has actually decreased and the other side is increasing and the military population is constant.”

The demographic shift meant that by 2013 the Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School was racially imbalanced again. This time Groton redistricted, changing the neighborhood lines that determine which school a student attends. “Of course, everybody hates it,” Graner said. “From the urban neighborhoods to the suburban to the affluent neighborhoods, everybody despises this whole notion of redistricting.”

The 2013 redistricting cost $440,000 in additional transportation costs for having to bus the children to different schools. The effort not only irritated people in the town but moved the racial imbalances to other schools.

It was out of this Catch 22 that the Groton 2020 plan was born. The plan is to build one middle school that will serve the entire town of Groton and place it next to Fitch High School. The project is expected to cost $191.7 million and Graner hopes the state will fund 80 percent of the cost because it is trying to meet the state’s diversity demands. The plan also includes construction of two new elementary schools, one on the western side of the town and the other on the eastern side.

The state of Connecticut funds 20 to 80 percent of a school construction project depending on the wealth of the town based on the property tax base and income per person. There are also bonuses available depending on the nature of the project.

Rather than demolishing the existing schools, Groton will turn them into specialized magnet schools. Since 2000, seven Groton public schools have been closed in an effort to consolidate.

According to Graner, parents want more school choice and the Groton 2020 plan would give them many options as to where their children could attend school. “Racial balancing was part of it, school choice was part of it, aging facilities were part of it so its, you know, kind of a grab bag. Really the motivation of the plan comes from a number of different sources.”

Other towns are facing similar situations and have tried to meet racial guidelines through construction of new schools. The Medical and Teacher Preparations Academy in New Britain cost $64 million to construct and $10 million in annual operating expenses to the state. In 2015, West Hartford began a $42 million dollar school construction project to replace its Charter Oak Charter School with a “diversity school.”

Since the 1996 Sheff v. O’Neil ruling, Connecticut has sought to balance racial disparities through the creation of magnet schools with 95 now running across the state. The state pays for school construction through issuing bonds, adding to the long-term state debt.

Furthermore, there is the cost of operating the schools on a year-to-year basis. Magnet schools are funded through a combination of local and state taxes, depending on the school district. The state budgeted $286 million for magnet schools in 2015. The cost is also a burden on towns and municipalities. Since state law does not allow districts to reduce spending on education, towns cannot reduce local school funding as students transfer to magnet schools in other districts. As the number of magnet schools in the state grows, state and local education budgets continue to grow.

But the results of ending segregation have been mixed. In June of 2016 the plaintiff’s in Sheff v. O’Neil accepted a new agreement with the city of Hartford to continue desegregation efforts. Critics have accused the process – ongoing for the past 20 years – of being too slow and ineffective. Martha Stone, executive director for the Center for Children’s Advocacy, told the Hartford Courant, “The glass is still half-empty. And the promise to thousands of children in Hartford is still very elusive. So we’re going to have to step it up and we’re going to have to do some things differently.”

The town of Groton hopes the 2020 plan will be part of that solution but the state’s dire fiscal situation has yet to be considered. When asked if state budget cutbacks would effect the plan, Graner said, “That’s a good question. We just don’t know.”

Marc E. Fitch

Marc E. Fitch is the author of several books and novels including Shmexperts: How Power Politics and Ideology are Disguised as Science and Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFOs and Bigfoot. Marc was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and his work has appeared in The Federalist, American Thinker, The Skeptical Inquirer, World Net Daily and Real Clear Policy. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University. Marc can be reached at [email protected]

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