Judge grants class-action status to U-46 bias suit

Published: 8/11/2008 4:40 PM | Updated: 8/11/2008 8:02 PM

A federal judge has granted class-action status to a racial bias lawsuit filed 3 years ago against the state's second largest school district.

In a Friday filing, Federal Judge Robert W. Gettleman ruled that two groups of Elgin Area School District U-46 students could receive future remedies if they prevail in the lawsuit.

If the court rules in favor of the five Elgin families accusing the district of racial bias, all current Hispanic and black U-46 students who have been subject to racial discrimination in school programs and services would receive remedies. Areas where racial discrimination may have occurred, Gettleman said, include instability of student assignments, assignment to non-neighborhood schools, assignment to overcrowded schools and transportation burdens.

All current Hispanic U-46 students receiving bilingual services, those who have received those services in the past four years or those "who should have but did not receive (bilingual) services," would also receive remedies.

If both sides were to come to a settlement outside of court, class-action status requires that the judge approve any terms of the deal.

Friday's ruling doesn't come as a surprise to many.

It does, however, turn more eyes than ever on the heavily Hispanic, 41,000-student district. U-46 is by no means the only district in the suburbs with a large concentration of Hispanic students.

"At this point, everybody, including minority groups are just waiting to see how this affects every faction of the community," Elgin city councilman and U-46 parent Juan Figueroa said. "I fear the unknown. What is this really going to cost everybody here?"

The lawsuit, first filed in February 2005, claims U-46 violated the rights of black and Latino students by placing them in older, more crowded schools; forcing them to ride buses longer and more often than their white peers; and providing them with inferior educational opportunities.

The Elgin families want the court to mandate and oversee a plan that ends discriminatory policies and practices.

The first request that Judge Gettleman grant class-action status was denied in March 2006.

Six months later, lawyers representing the Elgin families filed another motion seeking class-action status.

That motion, which Gettleman approved Monday, "better articulated our claims," said Carol Ashley, a lawyer with Futterman Howard, the Chicago-based firm representing the plaintiffs.

Gettleman wrote that he granted class-action on the basis that the racial bias accusations were tied specifically to the experiences of the 13 plaintiffs and the two minority groups they represent.

Gettleman was expected to rule on the class action status of the amended complaint more than a year ago.

Monday's filing "was not on our radar," said Patricia Whitten, a lawyer for Franczek Sullivan, one of the two firms representing the district.

Whitten said district leaders are "disappointed" by Gettleman's ruling.

U-46 attorney Pat Broncato said district officials are trying to determine a course of action.

According to 2007 state report cards, 42.7 percent of U-46 students are white. With black and Hispanic students making up 47.8 of the district's population, the lawsuit directly affects nearly 20,000 children and their families. If plaintiffs win at trial or gain a settlement, the changes will affect the entire district, and could prove to be very costly, Whitten said.

Elgin Area School District U-46 has already spent more than $4.6 million in defense of the lawsuit.

The suit is still in its early stages, with both sides currently in the process of oral discovery - collecting the depositions from a number of key witnesses.

"At some level, I think the cost would have been there regardless," Ashley said. "But because the scope of any sort of remedy will now be larger, if this goes to trial, the actual trial will be more comprehensive and certainly the remedies ordered by the court we'd anticipate they'd be more comprehensive."

Over the past two decades, three major school desegregation lawsuits have affected Illinois school districts.

In Champaign and Freeport, parents crying foul over school bias and district leaders intent on staying out of court did just that during the mid-1990s.

Lawyers from Futterman and Howard and Franczek Sullivan - the same firms involved in the U-46 suit - negotiated settlements in both cases, implementing racial fairness guidelines at a fraction of the cost of Rockford's 15-year legal morass, which during the 1990s drove hundreds of families into private schools, sharply divided the city and cost taxpayers $250 million.

With the U-46 case still in its early stages, "Elgin may be outpacing Rockford in terms of costs," said Ashley, who worked on the Champaign, Freeport and Rockford cases.

A number of people in the U-46 community, Ashley said, "have the misconception we're seeking a Rockford-type remedy here. That's never been the case. This is a more limited case, related to student assignment burdens, mobile classrooms, busing burdens on minority students," she said.

U-46 board President Ken Kaczynski said Monday that the board has long feared the lawsuit would become a repeat of Rockford.

"That's been our fear with this case all along," he said. "It's draining resources from the classroom. And I would anticipate that this (class-action ruling) wouldn't change that."

Kaczynski declined to comment further, saying board members had not yet been briefed by their lawyers.

A status hearing addressing the class-action ruling will take place next Tuesday at the Everett Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago.

"You always hope that two parties can come together and somehow have a resolution and some sort of settlement before things get more complicated," Figueroa said. "We've failed to do that here."