Attorneys on both sides of a discrimination case against Elgin Area School District U-46 spent almost an hour in the presiding judge's chambers Thursday discussing ways to resolve the matter without resorting to an appeal.
The content of that conversation was closed to the public and the media.
Judge Robert Gettleman ruled in favor of U-46 on two out of the three main questions in the case but said the district discriminated against Latino students when it placed them in a separate, segregated gifted program. The district's attorneys already have been discussing appeal options with school board members since Gettleman's decision was released July 11.
But, returning to open court from his chambers Thursday, Gettleman said the goal would be to avoid that.
"I'm hopeful that we can resolve the remaining issues without further expenditure of time and resources," Gettleman said. He said he hopes to have the issues he raised with the gifted program addressed by the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.
The closed-door conversation among attorneys amounted to settlement discussions. Settlement was put on the table several times since the 2005 case was filed and even before it came to that. A successful settlement at this stage would mean avoiding additional phases of costly litigation.
Of course, if settlement discussions break down, both sides will return to open court to argue the case further.
"We're getting back together in early October to explore the options that will be discussed in connection with a settlement," Gettleman said. "And also to bring me up to date on what's happened since discovery closed in 2009 and to see where we go into the future, which we all hope will be peaceful and productive for the children of District U-46."
Gettleman's ruling about the district's gifted program applied to how it was run prior to 2009. He will need more information about any changes made since then before requiring school officials to remedy the current situation.
Gettleman did not rule against the district in its 2004 school boundary changes that prompted the original lawsuit filed by five black and Latino families in 2005. Plaintiffs said the boundary changes, which concentrated students in neighborhood schools, discriminated against minorities by leaving them in inferior, overcrowded schools while sending their white peers to newer, more spacious facilities.
The case was two-pronged when it came to the boundaries. The plaintiffs tried to argue the district intentionally discriminated against minorities by switching to a neighborhood schools model that it knew would reduce the diversity in its schools. That would have violated black and Latino students' 14th Amendment rights to equal protection.
The second argument didn't require intentional discrimination. Under the Illinois Civil Rights Act, plaintiffs argued the student assignment plan was unlawful because it had a greater effect on minority students because they were sent to overcrowded schools that needed mobile classrooms.
While the plaintiffs tried to argue the mobiles were inferior and detrimental to the education of students of color, Gettleman did not find them convincing.
He also believed the district when it said race was not a factor in drawing attendance boundaries. Because administrators said they specifically excluded race from their decisions over school assignment, plaintiffs could not prove they intentionally discriminated against black and Latino students in choosing a neighborhood schools model.
Gettleman also ruled in favor of the district based on the way it ran its English Language Learners program. The plaintiffs originally argued that former Superintendent Connie Neale instituted an "early exit" ELL program where students are expected to enter mainstream classes after three years of ELL instruction instead of when they actually became proficient in English. Gettleman said if the plaintiffs had proved such a program was implemented they may have succeeded in arguing an Equal Educational Opportunities Act violation.
But Gettleman said trial evidence proved otherwise. The program, while considered, was implemented at most for only one year and then changed after fierce opposition within the district.
The fall hearing, scheduled for Oct. 11, is expected to be closed to the public as settlement talks continue.