Elgin families to try for settlement in racial bias suit

A federal judge's harsh words have prompted the five Elgin families suing Elgin Area School District U-46 to make another go at settlement.

"You know, I read the papers, so I read about U-46 all the time. It seems that they're a distressed school district. I don't understand why this case is still kicking around. It would seem to me that they have better things to spend their money on than litigation," Judge Robert W. Gettleman remarked at a hearing last week. "... I don't understand why sane minds don't try to wrap themselves around this problem and resolve this case."

Monday's request for the court to schedule a settlement conference is the third attempt by the Elgin families.

A December 2008 settlement conference failed after 31/2 hours of talks. Lawyers from both sides declined to elaborate on specifics, citing judge's orders. An attempt at talks also failed in December 2004, before the lawsuit was filed.

Sparked by 2004 boundary changes, the five-year-old class-action suit charges that U-46 violated the rights of black and Latino students by placing them in older, more crowded schools; forcing them to ride buses farther and more often than their white peers; and giving them inferior educational opportunities.

It is now nearing the end of expert discovery, the final portion of the pretrial exchange of evidence.

"Given that much has transpired since the last attempt at settlement ... it would seem that the parties can now better address the issues that are raised in this matter," the plaintiffs wrote in their motion.

No settlement offer has yet been presented.

Patti Whitten, who represents U-46, said the motion caught the district by surprise. Whitten said she spoke with chief legal officer Pat Broncato Monday, but the school board has not yet been briefed.

"We don't know what our position is going to be. At a minimum we need to see a settlement offer," she said.

District officials have repeatedly reiterated their refusal to give up control of the 41,000-student district.

"Our board believes strongly that they are the ones elected to run this district, and they won't do it with an eighth member, with a consent decree," Superintendent Jose Torres said in mid-March. "Now we think that the speediest way to get a resolution is through a trial."

Torres, a former regional superintendent at Chicago Public Schools, had to live with court intervention as a result of the Corey H. special education suit.

The 1992 suit, over which Gettleman also presided, was filed by three families on behalf of all special education students in Chicago Public Schools. The families claimed that the school system and the Illinois State Board of Education were violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by restricting special education students to certain classrooms. After years of litigation, a portion of the case was eventually settled outside of court.

The U-46 suit, still months from trial, has already cost U-46 $8.7 million in legal fees.

The district, which predicts a $44 million deficit next year, has approved $30 million in layoffs, with more on the negotiating table.

"When I see the school districts dragged into protracted litigation like this, it hurts. Kids should be educated. They shouldn't be paying for lawyers to fight their cases," Gettleman said.

U-46 is required to file a response to the motion by April 26.