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updated: 9/21/2012 7:22 PM

Legal bills mount as U-46 trial returns for last chapter

$16.7 million so far as final chapter nears

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In the past eight years, Elgin Area School District U-46 racked up about $16.7 million in legal bills to defend school boundary changes that a 2005 federal lawsuit claims are racially biased.

That figure surely will grow as the lawsuit before federal Judge Robert Gettleman heads down the home stretch. But an end to the lawsuit that was first filed in 2005 is not necessarily in sight.

Attorneys for the families who filed the lawsuit against the district are scheduled for rebuttal testimony Monday. Closing arguments and the judge's ruling will follow, but not necessarily in short order.

When the trial began last February, the district had spent about $8.6 million for legal representation from Washington, D.C.-based law firm Hogan Lovells, and Chicago firm Franczek Radelet. As of September, the district had paid Hogan Lovells $10.83 million and Franczek Radelet $5.96 million.

Patricia Whitten, an attorney with Franczek Radelet and spokeswoman for the district on trial matters, said the district has had no other choice but to defend the suit.

"We have tried to settle the suit and have not been able to, frankly," Whitten said. "There was a generous offer made to the plaintiffs in the spring that they did not accept."

Details of the settlement offer are confidential and Whitten said no reason was given for the rejection.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs refused to comment on the pending lawsuit. Stewart Weltman, attorney for the law firm Futterman Howard and Weltman, said in an email to the Daily Herald that "it is obvious that the suit is seeking to correct the longstanding discriminatory practices and policies that have existed in the district."

The main issues central to the case are the district's redrawn attendance boundaries in the 2004-2005 school year, the use of mobile classrooms, gifted programs for English Language Learners and access to English Language Learners programs throughout the district. The five families that brought the original suit against the district said the redistricting forced black and Hispanic students into run-down and overcrowded schools, provided students inadequate bilingual services and denied them access to gifted programs. The suit is limited to practices up to and including the 2008-2009 school year.

A ruling against the district would result in the district paying legal fees to the families that sued the district. The exact amount of those costs is based on which parts of the case the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs.

"The way this trial is going we are going to fight over that, too," Whitten said.

Furthermore, the judge could ask to hear evidence supporting the district's attempts to remedy issues brought up in the suit or make the sides settle on all issues.

For now, that remains speculation.

"It could mean nothing if the judge determines that it is a simple remedy," Whitten said. "He could ask to hear evidence on current conditions and he may decide there's no problem. ... There's a wide range of things he could order. We are confident he is not going to do that based on the evidence presented to him."

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