February 1, 1996

Education Company Banned From Hartford Schools


HARTFORD, Conn. -- Only a week after Hartford announced that it wanted to end the nation's largest experiment in private management of public schools and reach an "amicable" settlement with its corporate partner, Education Alternatives Inc., the city on Wednesday barred the company from its 32 schools.

The superintendent of schools, Eddie Davis, issued the order only hours before the company said it planned to disable 400 computers and scores of photocopiers and fax machines that it had installed in the schools, because the city was not paying for their use.

On Wednesday night, the company responded that it would take the city to court unless it was given access to its equipment.

"Right now, they have taken our property illegally," a spokesman for Education Alternatives, Tom Drohan, said.

The Board of Education voted on Jan. 23 to negotiate an early end to its five-year contract with Education Alternatives. The decision came after weeks of demands from the company that the city reimburse it for at least part of the $11 million it has spent here since beginning work in November 1994.

Of nearly $4 million in bills that have been submitted so far, the city has paid the company only $343,000. The city has contended that many expenses were ineligible and that the company failed to comply with the contract, under which it was to be paid only if it produced a surplus in the school budget.

After the school board's vote to end the experiment, the company declared that the city had breached its contract. The company said it would discontinue all services to the schools on Wednesday, including the use of computers and other equipment it had installed, unless it was paid.

"Incredibly," Drohan said after Wednesday's action, "the city's position seems to suggest we have no right to access to computers we own and equipment we lease."

Hartford's corporation counsel, Pedro E. Segarra, said the order barring Education Alternatives from the schools was intended "to avoid disruption to the education of children."

Under the contract, Hartford can keep the computer laboratories that the company installed in five schools by paying for them or taking over their leases. In a proposed termination agreement delivered to the company on Wednesday, city officials said they want to keep the computers, which are in almost constant use, until at least the end of the school year.

How the city can afford the computers and equipment is another issue, however, since the city contends that the $171 million school budget has no money for any of the company's services.

Hartford was the first city in the nation to hire a company to help manage its entire public school district. At the time, Education Alternatives was the largest for-profit school manager in the country, operating 11 public schools in Baltimore and 1 in Dade County, Fla.

In the last year, however, Dade County decided not to renew its contract with EAI and Baltimore canceled its contract because the company would not accept a reduction in its payment to help the district cover a budget shortfall. The company now has no public-school contracts.

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