HARTFORD, Conn. -- The Board of Education is preparing to hire a profit-making company to manage Hartford's 32 schools, although fierce opposition from teachers and questions about the financial arrangements have caused city officials to reject the company's bid to take nearly full control of the system.
The school board's vote, perhaps as soon as today, would make Hartford the nation's first city to hire a private manager for its entire school system. But instead of having wide latitude to squeeze millions in savings from the budget to pay for improvements to the city's troubled schools, the company, Education Alternatives Inc., will be given control over only a small part of the system's $171-million budget and will be asked to reorganize the schools from within, working with the bureaucracy that is acknowledging its own failure by hiring the company.
Board members who support hiring the company said the board was likely to insist on keeping control of hiring and firing and to require that its expensive contracts with teachers and other employees be respected. Education Alternatives, the Minneapolis company that runs 12 schools in Baltimore and one in the Miami area, will be allowed to revise the Hartford district's curriculum, retrain teachers, bring computers into classrooms and search for economies. But, under the board's latest proposal, the company will have to do so with approval by Hartford's school superintendent or the school board itself.
As cities across the country consider privatizing their schools to make better use of scarce resources, Hartford's experience shows how reluctant even the most desperate districts are to hand over control to companies that answer to stockholders instead of taxpayers.
In exchanging proposals, city and company officials have agreed that the company, over five years, would aim to raise standardized test scores and attendance rates by specific percentages. The board would be able to cancel the contract at any time.
The company has proposed that Hartford pay its expenses out of the savings the company hopes to find within the school budget. If after those expenses are paid, money is left over, those savings would be divided equally among the company, as its fee, the school board and the city. While neither side has estimated the potential savings, the company has projected its operating costs in the first year at $6 million. If it could not find that much in savings, it would have to bear those costs itself.
In a city that spends more per pupil than most of its suburbs yet achieves the worst academic results in the state, critics say they cannot see how the company will be able to accomplish more than the Board of Education with the same budget, while taking a profit.
"There's no question that Hartford's no different from any other large city," said the school board's chairman, William Meagher, one of only three people on the nine-man board who oppose private management. "Problems exist and we want to do something about it. But I don't think sending millions to Minnesota is the way to go."
The company is a young, publicly owned corporation whose stock soared after it won management and consulting contracts for 12 public schools in Baltimore in 1992. Its efforts to go citywide here have made Education Alternatives, as much as education itself, the focus of controversy. Education Alternatives has bet much of its corporate future on winning a districtwide contract.