U-46 desegregation case: Anatomy of a trial

Last of four parts

Attorneys for Elgin Area School District U-46 and lawyers representing black and Hispanic families in the district have been preparing for this moment for six years.

Since 2005, when the families initiated a federal desegregation lawsuit against the state’s second-largest district, attorneys have filed more than 500 court documents, the school district has spent almost $8.6 million in legal fees and experts for both sides have made numerous visits to schools across the district.

Today, in the Chicago courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Gettleman, attorneys for the families suing the district will begin to build a case proving, they hope, that the district discriminated against minorities by sending them to inferior schools, failing to provide proper bilingual support and denying them equal access to gifted programs.

The class-action lawsuit filed by Chicago law firm Futterman Howard in 2005 will finally get under way. Three attempts to settle the matter out of court, including one before the suit was even filed, were unsuccessful.

In the first phase of the trial, attorneys for both sides will argue the issue that is at the heart of the desegregation case: the claim that U-46, especially after 2004 school boundary changes, placed blacks and Hispanics in older, more crowded schools while allowing whites to reap the benefits of newer facilities.

That initial phase is set for today through March 3. Later phases of the trial, which will address claims about U-46’s bilingual and gifted programs, have not been assigned trial dates.

Although a trial date indicates that the lengthy period of discovery, when lawyers for both sides collect evidence and interview witnesses, has ended, it could be years before there is any kind of resolution in the case.

The last major desegregation trial in the area, “People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education,” took 10 months. A comprehensive order — telling Rockford schools what exactly they had to do to integrate — was not handed down until two years after the trial concluded.

But unlike Rockford, which had a history of segregation and legal action dating to at least the 1970s, U-46 faced federal litigation only after it implemented new districtwide attendance boundaries in 2004. Those differences could have a bearing on how long a trial drags on and how long it takes the court to come up with an order.

“The precise characteristics of the Rockford situation were ill-defined and voluminous,” said Steve Katz, who represented employee unions during the Rockford suit and later served as general counsel for Rockford schools. “In Elgin, you’ve got some discrete actions that gave rise to the suit. To the extent that you have more discrete actions ... that would indicate the remedies would be more limited as well.”

The plaintiffs

A central contention of the complaint against U-46 is that the district did not use race as a factor in redrawing school attendance boundaries — even though it was permitted to do so.

Instead, plaintiffs’ attorneys will argue, U-46 directed a demographics expert to come up with a boundary map that relied on neighborhood schools, the idea that students should attend the school closest to home.

That philosophy, which has been acknowledged to a certain extent by the district, resulted in minorities attending older and more-crowded schools than white students, plaintiffs’ lawyers will argue.

As required for claims brought under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the plaintiffs will try to prove U-46 intentionally discriminated against minorities in redrawing the district map.

According to a proposed trial outline submitted to the court, plaintiffs will present as evidence a document in which, they claim, the U-46 school board stated before adopting the new boundary map that a purpose of the map was to eliminate “forced diversity.”

According to the plaintiffs’ filing, “Use of the phrase eliminating ‘forced diversity’ was code to the district’s white constituents to seek their support for a plan that would and, in fact, did remove minority students from their predominantly white schools.”

Aside from this document, plaintiffs’ evidence will include annual school report cards, charts and data from the Illinois State Board of Education; reports prepared for the Citizens Advisory Council, a group of residents that advises the U-46 school board; testimony from witnesses in the district; and testimony from experts.

Those witnesses are expected to include Superintendent Jose Torres, former Superintendent Connie Neale and current or former U-46 board members.

The district

In public statements and previous court filings, the district has acknowledged that sending students to schools in their neighborhood and reducing transportation costs were factors in 2004 boundary decisions.

To win their case, attorneys for U-46 will have to show there is a compelling reason for students to attend schools close to home. They are likely to cite the money and time saved when buses don’t have to traverse as many miles as well as the benefits gained when a school has strong ties with the families in the community where it is located.

It is difficult to discern what exactly U-46 will argue, though, because the district’s court filings generally avoid making explicit legal arguments.

The district is likely to rely on testimony from district employees as well as its own outside experts. U-46 attorneys will probably use similar data and documents to rebut or downplay plaintiffs’ claims minorities are significantly worse off in older schools.

What’s next

Even after a decision, the appeals process could take years. In the Rockford case, the appellate court issued its ruling a year after the lower court decision, but litigation and court supervision continued until 2002 — six years after the initial ruling was handed down.

Experts say there is no hard and fast rule that determines when parties in a case should appeal. Instead, in each case they have to weigh the cost of continuing to fight against their chances of success.

“That really depends on the players and how entrenched different positions are,” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago professor and former attorney for the law firm suing the district.

While attorneys for both sides are busy preparing for trial, a settlement is still possible, although experts disagree over whether that is in the best interests of U-46.

Katz laid out one possible settlement scenario, based on his experience in Rockford: “You would build a structure where the plaintiffs would have a seat at the table. You’re creating a nightmare for the running of the school district and you have a bottomless pit. There is no incentive for the case ever to be concluded because the money is coming from the taxpayers to pay everybody.”

But, Futterman said, “If there are real issues there, it tends to be in the interests of all sides to find a negotiated resolution and not waste time and resources fighting litigation.”

U-46 desegregation trial: The issues

U-46 desegregation trial: The impact

U-46 desegregation case: The players