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Article updated: 7/11/2013 6:58 PM

Judge: U-46 did not slight minorities in boundary changes

By Tara García Mathewson

Eight years after a group of Elgin Area School District U-46 families sued the district for racial discrimination, Judge Robert Gettleman filed his opinion, finding mostly in favor of the district.

In his opinion, made public Thursday, Gettleman said the district did not discriminate against minority students when it redrew school boundaries in 2004. The families who brought the case forward argued that black and Latino students were sent to crowded schools that used mobile classrooms more often than schools their white peers attended.

He also said the district's English Language Learners program does not violate the Equal Education Opportunity Act -- another accusation from the plaintiffs.

Gettleman did decide the U-46 gifted program does discriminate against minority students.

Patricia Whitten, an attorney and spokeswoman for the district on trial matters, said attorneys are still trying to interpret the 50-page decision but are generally pleased with the ruling.

"We're really gratified that the judge found in our favor on the majority of the issues in the case and particularly on what started all of this, which were the boundary changes in 2004-2005," Whitten said.

She added that the ruling about the gifted program is "overall" in the favor of the district, but narrowly calls out the Spanish-English Transition School Within a School program, or SET SWAS. The program launched in the 1998-99 school year to offer gifted classes to students whose first language is Spanish. But the vast majority of students accepted to the program are identified as proficient enough in English to be in English-only classes.

Gettleman highlighted this fact in his opinion, saying the "segregated" gifted programs were not justified during the trial and ultimately discriminate against Latino students.

Whitten said the district holds the opposite view.

"That program is really all about supporting students who are coming out of the bilingual program and still have language needs," Whitten said.

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs could not be reached immediately to comment on the decision.

Both sides must appear in court at 2 p.m. July 25 to discuss the ruling.

"Any remedy with respect to the gifted program must account for the current status of that program -- including the District's method for identifying gifted elementary students and whether the district has continued to operate a separate, segregated program," Gettleman wrote in his opinion.

If the judge decides the current program still violates the rights of minority students, the district will have to submit a plan to change that.

Whitten said the possibility of appeal will be discussed with board members as early as Monday during their scheduled closed session meeting.

U-46 has spent more than $18 million defending itself against the lawsuit. The district could be forced to pay a portion of attorney fees for the plaintiffs because of the SET SWAS decision in their favor but that has yet to be decided.

Five families were named as plaintiffs in the case. They are the Tapias, McFaddens, Burciagas, Ivys and Sifuenteses. The first four families live in Elgin, according to stipulated facts of the case, released with the judge's decision. The Sifuentes child attended Elgin schools but the court documents do not specify where she lives.

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