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Article updated: 6/23/2013 3:50 PM

Why U-46 shies away from boundary changes

District shies away from boundary changes in wake of bias lawsuit

By Tara García Mathewson

The last time Elgin Area School District U-46 redrew its attendance boundaries, it was slapped with a racial bias lawsuit.

At the core of the 2005 suit were allegations that the district sent black and Latino students to overcrowded schools and bused them farther and more often than their white peers after redrawing boundaries a year earlier.

Since then, U-46 has stayed away from any further boundary changes, ignoring the recommendations of the committee it assigned to monitor enrollment trends. In one case, 2 miles separate two elementary schools -- one that is over capacity and one that is just more than half full.

"They're not able to go about the business of doing what's best for the kids because they're fearful of the ramifications of the lawsuit," said Bev Jaszczurowski, a former member of the enrollment and facilities committee that is made up of parent representatives who serve as the district's experts on demographic changes. The group has recommended redrawing school boundaries since 2007 based on projections that have historically proven accurate.

In 2010, U-46 Chief of Staff Tony Sanders told committee members that planned boundary changes would have to be delayed at least a year because of financial constraints. Now, though, district spokesman Patrick Mogge says there has not been a need for boundary changes. He pointed to slowed population growth in the district, an increase in student-to-teacher ratios that has stretched the capacity of crowded schools and construction projects that have increased space in existing schools.

Mogge declined to say whether the lawsuit has factored into the district's decision-making.

School board members contacted for this story said they could not comment at length on school boundaries because of the lawsuit, on which the district has spent $18.2 million.

Earlier this spring, though, the board approved a $3.5 million construction project that included five new classrooms at Ontarioville Elementary School in Hanover Park, work slated for completion this summer.

A 2012 enrollment and facilities committee report -- the group's latest -- projected Ontarioville would be at 102 percent of capacity for the just-concluded school year. Two miles away, Horizon Elementary School was at 54 percent capacity.

In total, the report cited 103 "empty or repurposed elementary classrooms" available throughout the district and suggested "sensible solutions to utilize our schools in a more efficient manner."

While many of the empty classrooms are far away from schools that need the extra space, the Ontarioville-Horizon situation is an oft-cited example of an obvious fix.

Jaszczurowski, a Bartlett parent who served on the enrollment committee for five years and co-chaired the group as it assembled its latest report, said she was stunned to hear about the construction project at Ontarioville.

"To spend money on an addition when we have 100 classrooms ... it's a simple concept to me," Jaszczurowski said. "As a taxpayer, why do I want to pay for an addition?"

Jeff King, chief operations officer for U-46, said the district saved $1 million by combining the classroom construction with other projects, such as replacing two boilers and installing new piping and a sprinkler system.

He cited the need for extra classrooms because of the committee's projections that Ontarioville attendance will continue to climb through 2017.

But Jaszczurowski said the district could open a new English Language Learners or Dual Language program at Horizon and reduce the crowding at Ontarioville by pulling kids to that program. The district already buses students from Horizon to Ontarioville for the programs there. Jaszczurowski said those students could become walkers while a similar number of kids from Ontarioville would be bused in the opposite direction.

To that idea, King said there is not a "critical mass" of students -- 100 to 120 -- to start the new program. And if there were, he said it could cost $500,000 per year for teachers, transportation and material costs.

Frank Napolitano, elected to the school board in April, said during his campaign that the new construction at Ontarioville was a waste of money.

But board President Donna Smith, elected to her fourth term in April, said redrawing the attendance boundaries is a big job.

"It's not as easy as taking the kids from the overcrowded schools and putting them into the empty classrooms," Smith said.

U-46 shifted to a "neighborhood schools" model when it redrew boundaries in 2004. That model tries to keep kids within walking distance from their schools as often as possible. Busing them across town to the empty seats is not desirable.

Beyond that, board members cited the lawsuit as pending litigation that kept them from commenting further.

The class-action suit, filed on behalf of several families in U-46, accuses the district of sending minorities to inferior schools after it redrew school boundaries. It also accuses the district of discrimination in the way it runs its bilingual and gifted programs.

In post-trial documents, the district argued that the plaintiffs didn't prove their claims and that, in reality, the district has diverse, integrated schools, has increased participation by black and Latino students in its gifted program and runs an effective program for English Language Learners.

Both parties are waiting to find out whether Judge Robert Gettleman will require any more information before making a decision, which some close to the case say could come this summer.

In the meantime, Mogge said U-46 does not have any plans to redraw boundaries, including small-scale changes affecting just a couple schools such as Horizon and Ontarioville.

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