HARTFORD, Conn. -- In an emotional decision watched closely by public school officials and educators across the nation, the Hartford Board of Education voted yesterday to hire a private company to manage its entire system.
By a 6-3 vote, the board agreed to begin contract negotiations with Education Alternatives Inc. of Minneapolis, which runs nine schools in Baltimore.
The board also agreed to have EAI start work in the city's 32 schools no later than Aug. 8, but possibly as early as next week. Important decisions, such as how EAI will be paid and how much control it will have -- and even where it will set up offices -- were left up to a contract negotiations committee.
The vote made Hartford the first city in the country to agree to hand over substantial control of its entire school system to a private company.
EAI has promised to improve Hartford's beleaguered schools by investing $20 million over three years in computers, teacher training and building improvements. The company proposed sharing potential savings from next year's $171.1 million budget with the City Council and the Board of Education.
EAI Chairman John T. Golle, appearing calm on one of the most momentous -- and possibly most lucrative -- days in the history of his 8-year-old company, said a "transition team" of at least 100 people will soon arrive in Hartford.
School starts in just over a month, and EAI has long said it wants to make major improvements before then, such as installing computers and fixing up buildings.
"What can we do? You'll be surprised," Mr. Golle said. To his many detractors in Hartford, he said, "Give us a chance for our actions to speak louder than our words."
The vote was the culmination of five months of aggressive courtship of Hartford by EAI and of a sometimes raucous debate in the community. From the beginning, in late March, EAI had six solid school board votes in favor of privatization that never wavered.
"It makes me feel hopeful about the future," board member Stephanie Lightfoot, an EAI supporter, said shortly after the vote, as supporters cheered and some parents popped a bottle of champagne outside the building.
"It leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth," said board President William Meagher, who voted against EAI. He was particularly angry that EAI supporters would not permit Elizabeth Brad Noel, another opponent of EAI, to be a part of the team negotiating a contract with EAI. The board members on that team were appointed last night.
Hartford turned to the privatization idea after years of declining test scores, low morale, increasing social problems such as violence and pregnancy, severe budget cuts, crumbling buildings and a rising sense of desperation. There are 25,000 students in Hartford, making it the second-largest school system in New England.
Hyacinth Yenne, a parent, said she was elated by the board's decision to go with EAI. "I feel great about it," she said. "We are [finally] going some place."
But Birdie Cody, a longtime teacher, called the vote "the worst decision that the board could have made. Many of the teachers that I have spoken to have no faith in EAI."
The Hartford Federation of Teachers has waged an aggressive campaign against EAI in Hartford. The union repeated yesterday its threat to challenge the legality of the process that led to EAI's selection.
Until the Hartford vote, EAI's main customer had been Baltimore, where it manages nine schools and provides noninstructional services at three others under a $27 million-a-year contract. But despite national marketing, EAI had been unable to land another contract, and Baltimore Superintendent Walter G. Amprey had backed off from plans to expand EAI services to other schools in his system.
The company has suffered a number of setbacks and public relations failures. In June, it admitted that it had overstated test scores at its Baltimore schools. Then city officials released scores for spring 1993 and spring 1994, showing a one-year decline in reading scores and only a slight increase in math scores at the EAI schools.