A screenshot of a Thursday Superior Court hearing on the Sheff v. O’Neill settlement

Potentially ending decades of litigation on racial inequities in Hartford schools, a Connecticut Superior Court judge approved a settlement agreement Thursday in the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill case, which will now head to the legislature for approval.

During an afternoon hearing conducted by video conference, Judge Marshall Berger gave his preliminary endorsement of what’s expected to be the last in string of settlements on racial segregation in Hartford area schools. The case stems from a 1989 complaint brought by a group of students. The case resulted in a 1996 state Supreme Court decision finding that Connecticut had a constitutional obligation to address racial inequities and isolation in Hartford’s schools.

Berger praised the settlement which among other things, commits the state to millions in additional annual funding and boosts the number of magnet school seats available to Hartford area students.

“Thousands of Hartford students including others in the Sheff area towns have benefited and will benefit from a quality education and a reduced isolation and desegregated education setting,” he said. “This agreement exemplifies what our system can produce.”

If approved by the legislature, the agreement would end the court jurisdiction that has been in place for decades, but allows the plaintiffs an avenue to return to the court if they find the state out of compliance within the next 10 years. 

Under the agreement, Connecticut will fund up to an additional 2,737 seats for Hartford students at area magnet schools by 2029 and make adjustments as necessary following assessments every three years. The state will also provide financial incentives for suburban towns to accept additional Hartford students who enroll in the Open Choice program to attend school outside their district. 

The agreement also funds improvements to magnet schools that are not meeting diversity goals. That includes $6.8 million to improve athletic programs and $7.8 million for extracurricular activities. Magnet schools will see a $1.24 million boost in funding during the 2022 fiscal year, which would increase to $32 million annually by 2032, according to the governor’s office. 

During the hearing, participants on both sides reflected on the decades-long back and forth. Elizabeth Horton Sheff, whose son, Milo, was lead plaintiff, told the court that Milo Sheff was celebrating his 43rd birthday Thursday. Since the case began, Milo became a father and then a grandfather to a son and grandson, both also named Milo, she said. 

Elizabeth Sheff said the case had been a part of her life for so long, it had begun to feel like her child and the settlement felt like turning that child over to the state of Connecticut. 

“I just want to say, please take care of my baby. I’m giving you my baby,” she said.

Attorney General William Tong said the state took the obligation seriously.

“When we talk about education, education funding, we often throw words around like ‘fairness,’ ‘access,’ ‘equity’ and sometimes we use those words so much they may at times lose meaning,” Tong said. “Today we see that this commitment is what we mean.”

Gov. Ned Lamont backed the agreement in a press release, saying the settlement will make Open Choice programs more accessible for Hartford families. In the release, he and Tong urged the legislature to approve the settlement. 

“Every child deserves access to an education that provides them the best opportunity at the starting line of life, regardless of their zip code, family income level, race, or creed,” Lamont said. 

In a separate press release, House Majority Leader Jason Rojas reacted cautiously to the agreement and said he would review it when it came before the legislature. Rojas, who represents East Hartford and Manchester, said he supported the premise of the Sheff lawsuit, but had reservations about how the settlement would impact students in his district.

“Sadly, I continue to struggle with a policy prescription that isn’t adequate to effectuate truly integrated educational experiences for students regardless of race, family income, class or zip code,” Rojas said.