District U-46 settles discrimination case for $2.5 million
Elgin Area School District U-46 settled a 9-year-old discrimination lawsuit against the district for $2.5 million, officials said Monday.
The school board unanimously approved the settlement agreement Monday night in the case of McFadden vs. Board of Education for Illinois School District U-46.
The settlement comes after seven months of negotiations between the parties since the July 11, 2013, ruling by Federal Judge Robert Gettleman in favor of U-46 on two of the three main issues in the 2005 case.
Gettleman found in the district's favor on a 2004 student assignment plan saying it did not discriminate against Hispanic or black students. He also ruled the district's English Language Learners program did not violate federal law. However, Gettleman determined the school district discriminated against Latino students by placing them in a separate, segregated elementary gifted program. He called for U-46 to fix issues with the gifted program by the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.
Patti Whitten, U-46's outside legal counsel, said though the district does not agree with the court's decision and officials believe there is a strong basis for appealing and being successful, they decided to settle to save additional legal costs.
"We reached what we believe is a reasonable settlement of the plaintiff's fees -- $2.5 million over two fiscal years related to only the gifted portion of the trial -- to bring this matter to a close and avoid the expense of an appeal," school board President Donna Smith said in a news release. "We will use this as an opportunity to revamp and strengthen our gifted education program."
The original lawsuit, filed by five black and Latino families, was prompted by U-46 changing its school boundaries in 2004 and concentrating students in neighborhood schools. The plaintiffs said the boundary changes discriminated against minorities by leaving them in inferior, overcrowded schools while sending their white peers to newer, more spacious facilities. Gettleman found in the district's favor on that issue.
His ruling about the gifted program applied to how it was run before 2009.
Even before the settlement agreement was reached, the district developed a revised and expanded elementary program for gifted students. It establishes a talent development program for all students in first through third grades, an expanded and revised gifted program for students in fourth through sixth grades, a gifted dual language program in fourth through sixth grades, and cluster groupings for students identified as gifted in either language arts or mathematics in grades four through six.
Those changes are now part of the settlement agreement. Administrators Monday night further outlined changes to the elementary gifted and talented program.
"We need to be inclusive of students from different cultures, races and economic circumstances," said Mark Atkins, coordinator of gifted, world language, academies and Advance Placement. "Giftedness presents itself in different ways within those groups. The goal of this is to increase the diversity of the gifted population and to ensure we are meeting the needs of all students."
Atkins said the plan's implementation will be a collaborative effort among teachers, administration and community members.
Maree Sneed, U-46's outside legal counsel, said the plaintiffs through their attorneys have accepted the settlement and the gifted plan.
"It won't affect any of these current students," she said. "They will continue in their program. It will affect new students who are being identified this spring. The implementation of the program will start next year. Starting with fourth grade, there won't be a separate program for kids whose first language is not English. No one is being pulled out."
The agreement must now be accepted by the court after a fairness hearing on March 31 at which time anyone from the affected plaintiff classes -- Latino and black students in the district and Latino students who were part of the English Language Learners program -- may object to the settlement, Whitten said.
A majority of the original plaintiffs in the case have since graduated high school, she added.
"We do expect the court's approval of the plan and settlement," Whitten said.
The district must submit two reports to the court, in August 2015 and August 2016, about the implementation of the gifted program, per the agreement. There will be no court appointed monitor.
District officials are assessing exactly how much has been spent in legal fees for the lawsuit, and the costs associated with the gifted program changes, which will require hiring of additional gifted specialists and professional development for staff members.