U-46 desegregation trial begins

Help the white students first, then help the minorities. That has been the philosophy of Elgin Area School District U-46 officials over the past decade, lawyers suing the district argued Monday in the first day of their federal trial.

The attorneys are suing the district on behalf of five black and Hispanic families in the district, who in turn represent some 20,000 black and Hispanic U-46 students in the class action suit.

The lawsuit, filed in 2005, alleges U-46 placed minorities in overcrowded, older schools; provided inadequate bilingual services; and denied minorities access to gifted programs.

This week, attorneys will address claims minorities were sent to inferior schools — especially after 2004-05 school boundary changes.

Lawyers for both sides presented brief opening arguments Monday in the Chicago courtroom of U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman.

Plaintiffs' lawyers alleged a pattern of discrimination that began before the boundary changes were made and persisted after the plan was put in place.

“Throughout the last decade ... the district has made sure its white students are taken care of first, then it turns its attention to its minority students,” said Stewart Weltman, attorney for the plaintiffs.

Turning to the school boundary plan, Weltman said U-46 implemented the plan “knowing full well ... that this would destroy whatever ethnic diversity there was ... and it knew it would cause disparate overcrowding in already crowded minority schools.”

Attorneys for the district, though, said one question guided U-46's policies in the past decade: “What is in the best interest of all students?”

U-46 attorney Michael Hernandez said: “The plan which remains in effect today has enabled the opening of three schools. These three schools are majority Hispanic schools. ... The district did not discriminate in any fashion against any students.”

Plaintiffs began calling witnesses Monday morning. Under questioning from plaintiffs' lawyers, former U-46 Assistant Superintendent Lalo Ponce said the district's Enrollment and Facilities Committee did not consider the fact that bilingual classrooms must be smaller than other classrooms when studying school boundaries and capacities.

This is significant because state law requires schools to maintain bilingual classes at no more than 90 percent of the size of general education classes.

“They looked at architectural space,” said Ponce, now superintendent of West Chicago High School District 94. “They didn't differentiate between (English language learners) or (general education) or special (education).”

Plaintiffs' attorneys also tried to get current or former U-46 officials to admit mobile classrooms are inferior to regular classrooms. The plaintiffs claim U-46 has sited more mobiles at high-minority schools.

On the witness stand, U-46 facility planner and former Assistant Superintendent James Feuerborn said while he did not consider mobiles inferior to regular classrooms, he recommended that rookie teachers and small children should not be assigned to them.

Testimony continues Tuesday, with U-46 expected to present its case later this week or next week.