A longtime Elgin Area School District U-46 board member defended the school boundaries that are at the crux of a bias lawsuit against the district that alleges black and Hispanic students were sent to inferior schools and denied access to gifted programs after boundaries were redrawn before the 2004-2005 school year.
Joyce Fountain, who has served on the school board since 1993, testified Monday during the continuation of the trial that the school board worked on the boundary changes for a few years as the student population continued to grow. The district experienced growth in student population at a number of schools that required the board and administration to look at the district as a whole, Fountain said.
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"We could no longer just modify the immediate attention areas," said Fountain, who has also served as board president. At the time, the district was looking at three new elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.
Fountain said she supported the boundary plan based on information from administrators and a professional demographer.
"I felt like that plan was -- not that there is ever a perfect plan -- a good plan that allowed us to move forward to look at the most effective way to educate students," Fountain said.
Fountain said the boundary changes allowed more students to attend schools closer to home.
But Stewart Weltman, an attorney for the families who filed the initial lawsuit in 2005, said the boundary changes left thousands of empty seats in elementary schools across the district even as nearby schools used mobile classrooms. Weltman said each year between 2004-2005 and 2008-2009 there were 34 empty elementary classrooms in 11 schools.
Fountain said she was not aware of the number of seats available at other schools and said the district expected the need for mobile classrooms.
Weltman also contended the district failed to take into account the "90 percent rule" for English Language Learners when it redefined attendance boundaries. The state board of education requires that ELL classrooms not exceed 90 percent of the average student-teacher ratio in general education populations in the same school. After redrawing, Weltman said, some schools had an ELL population as high as 70 percent, and ELL classes were larger than regular education classes.
Furthermore, Weltman said that in 2003 no schools with a mostly white population had to use mobile classrooms and that elementary schools that were using mobile classrooms were predominantly Hispanic and African-American.
Fountain, who is black, said she was not aware of the statistic. She later told federal judge Robert Gettleman that she did not consider mobile classrooms inferior to regular classroom buildings.
"The mobile classrooms are equipped and teachers are still able to teach ...," Fountain said. "Like a former superintendent used to say, 'Children can learn under a tree.' Education is in the curriculum, not in the space."
The trial will continue Tuesday.