Groton officials balk at busing students to fix 'imbalance'

Groton - In light of a costly and disruptive townwide redistricting effort to address racial imbalance at an elementary school, state Rep. Edward Moukawsher, D-Groton, is asking state House leaders to seek a formal opinion on the constitutionality of state law.

Moukawsher said he was acting on comments by school board member Robert Peruzzotti, who has expressed his frustration with the state mandate that forces the school system to shuffle minority students to achieve a balanced racial makeup across the town's seven elementary schools.

The school system was cited by the state Department of Education in 2010 because more than 60 percent of students at Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School were members of ethnic and racial minorities.

By state law, a school is considered racially imbalanced if the minority population is greater than 25 percent of the district average. Any town that receives notification from the state about an imbalance must submit a plan to correct it.

Peruzzotti said the redistricting plan, which is still being revised, removes many students from Kolnaski, busing them to Mary Morrison Elementary School.

"We are taking students from the newest elementary school with some of the best teachers in the district and busing them based solely on the color of their skin," Peruzzotti wrote in a letter last week to state legislators. "Do you think this is going to benefit their education? Do you think parents are going to be happy with the move?"

Peruzzotti pointed out that Groton is in a unique position because of the Navy's transient population, which causes fluctuations in the school population.

Moukawsher this week sent a letter to state Rep. J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, House majority leader, and state Rep. Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, speaker of the House, asking them to seek a formal opinion from the attorney general. Formal requests, he said, must come from General Assembly leaders.

"It's disruptive, irrespective of the race of the students," Moukawsher said. "It's actually going to deprive a number of minority students from attending the most up-to-date school we have."

Moukawsher said a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision - "Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1" - "casts substantial doubt on the legality of the Connecticut statutes, which are being enforced against the Town of Groton and will require students to be moved from schools they currently attend."

The case involved whether it was constitutional for the school systems in the cities of Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., to use race as a way to decide placement in a particular school. Parents of students who were denied access to a certain school because of their race sued the districts.

Moukawsher said he has spoken with staff from the state education department and was told that statutes will continue to be enforced unless the attorney general or a decision of the court states otherwise.

A representative for the Department of Education was not immediately available to comment Wednesday.

Michael Zuba, associate planner for Milone & MacBroom, the company hired to help create a redistricting plan, outlined a preliminary plan earlier this month that calls for a 20 percent shift in the school population and includes moving some minority students, many from the federally subsidized Branford Manor Apartments complex.

Peruzzotti said he would vote against any redistricting plan "that buses one kid across town because of the color of their skin.

"To me, that's morally wrong," he said. "It doesn't help educate our children, and Groton doesn't have the money to waste on this."

The town is expected to present a plan to the State Board of Education in November and to hold a series of informational meetings for parents before submitting a final plan in December. The redistricting is expected to take effect for the next school year.

Interim School Superintendent Randall Collins said he had read the Supreme Court decision and was not entirely convinced it applies to state law. He said if the school board challenged the state on the issue, it would no doubt be an expensive and time-consuming fight.

"I just don't know that in the end, they would prevail," Collins said.

School board Chairwoman Kirsten Hoyt could not be reached to comment.


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