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updated: 7/24/2013 12:23 PM

U-46 discrimination case might be far from over

School district may appeal ruling in discrimination case

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Attorneys on both sides of a discrimination case against Elgin Area School District U-46 will be in court Thursday hoping for some clarity on the next steps of a lawsuit that has already dragged on for eight years.

Judge Robert Gettleman two weeks ago ruled in favor of the district on two out of three key questions, saying U-46 did not discriminate against minority students when it redrew school boundaries or in the way it operated its English Language Learners program. But Gettleman ruled in favor of the plaintiffs -- black and Latino families with children in the district -- on the final question. He said the district discriminated in the way it ran its gifted program.

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In his decision, released July 11, Gettleman asked both sides to appear for a hearing at 2 p.m. Thursday in his Chicago courtroom to "discuss the final stage of this litigation."

But Alonzo Rivas, Midwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and a co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said that doesn't mean the case is over.

The "final stage" will need updated information from the district in how it runs its gifted programs and could end with an appeal by U-46.

Gettleman agreed with the plaintiff's argument that U-46 unlawfully segregated Latino students by putting them into a separate gifted program, even though it almost exclusively admitted native Spanish speakers only when they had enough English proficiency to succeed in mainstream classes.

In his decision, Gettleman also highlighted the plaintiffs' expert witness's opinion that the way U-46 tests students for its gifted programs produces discriminatory results. The plaintiffs had argued that black and Latino students were sorely underrepresented in the district's gifted programs because of that testing.

But Patricia Whitten, who represents U-46 on behalf of Chicago law firm Franczek Radelet, initially thought the judge's decision against U-46 was narrowly limited to the separate gifted program. And, in the district's defense, she said the program was always meant to support Latino students, not discriminate against them.

Both sides will get clarification Thursday about the intricacies of Gettleman's ruling, including the district's responsibilities in remedying the operation of its gifted programs.

At stake is not money for the families who joined this case, which became a class-action suit on behalf of all black and Latino students in the district. The plaintiffs aim to force the district to change what they deem discriminatory practices.

The district, though, could still argue it shouldn't have to. And Whitten said an appeal is under discussion.

Board of education members were briefed in closed session July 15 and will discuss an appeal at their next meeting, once attorneys get more information from Gettleman on Thursday.

Rivas hopes that won't be the case.

"We're hoping that the district comes to its senses and doesn't protract this litigation and try to file an appeal," Rivas said, "because it would take that much longer to come to a remedial plan."

The final stage of the trial will also decide the matter of attorney fees. The district may have to cover a portion of the plaintiffs' legal costs but only those relating to its case against the gifted programs.

For its part, U-46 has already spent more than $18 million on the lawsuit.

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