July 31, 2017
Community Connections

Despite problems, Hartford’s civic health improving

Ted Carroll

There's been a lot of concern at the national level about the brokenness of our politics. But in local communities across America, there are countless examples of government officials being honest, courageous, transparent and committed to genuine citizen engagement. Fortunately, despite all of its current financial, social and educational issues, Hartford itself is becoming an example of how civic leaders can address those challenges.

Of course, the Capital City was not always the model of good governance. Twenty years ago last month, the Hartford Board of Education was formally dissolved and the state took over the management of the school district, a responsibility it would assume for the next five years. The reasons for the takeover were many and varied. Chronically low student test scores were a factor, but there was also a lack of confidence in the school system's ability to even manage itself let alone address the needs of students.

Trust in the elected school board, on which I served as a member, had eroded to a point where our meetings were so out of control that some citizens physically surrounded board members in Dec. 1996 to pressure us to vote for a candidate for superintendent they preferred over the more highly qualified candidate the board was favoring.

Several weeks later, one parent took such strong offense at a board member's comments that he rose from the audience and dumped a pitcher of ice water on the lap of my colleague. The next morning, it is reported that Gov. John Rowland called House Speaker Tom Ritter to discuss how the state should intervene. They concluded that Hartford could not fix itself. Five months later, the takeover began.

The takeover reflected the city's broken civic infrastructure at that time. But 20 years later, there are promising signs of improved civic health in the Capital City.

In June, Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, the school district's new superintendent, convened a "community conversation" aimed at helping her think through a process for redesigning Hartford's schools. Despite some good progress in the district, particularly these last 10 years, Hartford is still faced with too many schools that are failing and a financial picture that looks as bleak as ever.

The superintendent has made it plain that business as usual will not work. Change must come. Torres-Rodriguez has correctly determined that the district's multiple stakeholders need to be part of that change.

So, on June 12, more than 200 people, 40 percent of whom were parents of Hartford students, gathered for two hours at The Artists' Collective to envision together what every school in Hartford should include. Working in small groups of six to 10, and aided by trained facilitators from Leadership Greater Hartford, the gathering also helped prioritize concerns that need to be considered by the district as it moves to close and consolidate schools, a painful but necessary part of the redesign process.

The problems facing the school district and the municipal government are daunting. And yet, there are abundant reasons to feel hopeful about the Hartford community. Our leaders are inspired and competent. They are addressing big issues with honesty and courage. Most importantly, they are engaging the citizenry as partners. Community conversations and collaborative efforts are happening with increasing frequency and effectiveness.

Hartford has moved far beyond the chaos and divisiveness of the 1990s, and mercifully even further from the civil unrest and riots of the 1960s. While the city still has a long way to go before it claims full civic health, Hartford's citizen participation is a model for other cities.

We need to recognize, celebrate and build on this new level of engagement and trust so that we do not return to the dysfunction of the past. Let's continue to be an example of what's right about our democracy and avoid being an example of what's wrong.

Ted Carroll is president of Leadership Greater Hartford and a 40-year resident of Hartford.

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