U-46 bias suit judge: No settlement offer? No conference.

A federal judge has denied a request for a settlement conference by plaintiffs in the Elgin Area School District U-46 racial bias suit on the grounds that no offer has yet been brought forward.

Magistrate Judge Michael T. Mason's ruling cites the district's response Monday to the Elgin families' request for a settlement conference, which notes that the district "has long made clear that it will consider any specific written settlement proposal."

The plaintiffs, district lawyers said, have not provided any settlement proposal since an unsuccessful settlement conference in December of 2008. "Moreover, despite the fact that the parties have been engaged in frequent communications concerning both scheduling issues and discovery disputes, plaintiffs submitted their motion for an order mandating a settlement conference without even mentioning this idea to the district's counsel," lawyers wrote.

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.

The suit, now nearing the end of the pretrial exchange of evidence, is still months from trial.

It has cost U-46 more than $8.7 million in legal fees.

The December 2008 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.

"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 April 19 motion for another try at settlement.

The district, which predicts upward of a $40 million deficit next year, has approved $30 million in layoffs, with more on the negotiating table.

Mason noted that "this court is available to hold a settlement conference in the future if both parties agree that it would be productive."

Lawyers representing the families have not yet been reached by the Daily Herald.