Plaintiffs critical of report

Plaintiffs critical of report

CHAMPAIGN – The Champaign school district has not sufficiently shown how it will meet the goals of its federal consent decree, say the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case.

Instead, in a Sept. 22 report filed with the federal district court, the district provided a narrative of "many previously attempted and sometimes failed strategies or new strategies with inadequate monitoring provisions," and restated broad goals, they say. The plaintiffs particularly took issue with the failure to set out interim steps to reach the district's goals and measure its progress.

U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade this summer ordered the district to outline how it will comply with the obligations of the consent decree. The plaintiffs filed a response to the district's report Friday, in which the lawyers argued the school district didn't comply with the court's order.

"Our focus is on creating a document that is going to be helpful to the process ... so we can go into court closer together in terms of our positions," said Carol Ashley, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "I think that is going to benefit the community and the students. Our job right now is to try to create as much agreement as possible for the sake of the kids in the school system."

Ashley said some areas of the district's report didn't contain as much detail as she expected.

"I think we expected more dates certain, and a more fluid plan that as a community member, you can use to say, 'OK, they've done these four things, they've made a lot of progress,'" she said.

But Sally Scott, a lawyer for the school district, said the court asked for final targets and the procedural steps to reach those targets, and the district complied.

She said the court didn't ask for the interim targets the district would meet on its way to fulfilling its obligations. And she said the district did present steps in the process as appropriate.

"We made every effort to comply with what the court asked us to do, while maintaining the very strict page limitation the court set forth," she said.

Two of the biggest concerns of the plaintiffs are with special education and discipline.

The response states the efforts to reduce racial disparities in special education have been stagnant since 2002, and the district's initiatives have not been effective. It says data since 2002 show that almost 25 percent of the district's black students have been assigned to special education, and they make up almost 52 percent of total special education enrollment.

Plaintiffs say the district's report omitted their recommendation for proven academic and behavioral programs to help students with behavior disorders and learning disabilities and forestall assignment to special education. They also want the district to look at whether black and white students with comparable academic and behavior records are evaluated and assigned to special education at comparable rates.

The plaintiffs' response calls the district's discipline trends "dismal." It states the improvement at the elementary level – considered a success story – has reversed, with an 11 percent increase in the number of disciplinary incidents between the 2005 and 2006 school years. The middle and high schools, they say, are even worse.

"The district's total number of disciplinary incidents skyrocketed an astonishing 37 percent from school year 2005 to school year 2006," the response states.

Plaintiffs had concerns in several other areas addressed by the consent decree, in whether the district's strategic plan is adequately reviewed and modified from year to year, and in accountability for meeting the consent decree requirements.

On the positive side, the response stated the district has been highly successful in hiring more black teachers.

It also said meetings with district officials to develop plans to address consent decree issues were productive. But, plaintiffs say, the district didn't include many of their suggestions in its report, especially the request for measurable interim steps toward its goals.

Scott said the plaintiffs did not raise all the concerns enumerated in their response during their meetings with school district officials, "much to our disappointment, because we would have welcomed the opportunity to discuss any issues or concerns the plaintiffs may have had about what we were presenting during those meetings."

"We do really believe there are good individuals that work tremendously hard to try to do things in the district," Ashley said. "We're concerned about the overall strategy and how to put a plan together. It shouldn't just be about district administrators. It has to be about school-level principals and teachers and staff to get this done."

Ashley said two high-priority issues for her are ensuring the school district has useful data for measuring its progress, and taking the work done on elementary school achievement and planning how to now focus on achievement at the middle school and high school levels.

The response includes a restructured report that includes plaintiffs' suggestions for specific steps for the district to take, and it asks the district to present a modified report before the Oct. 19 hearing scheduled in the case.

"I hope we use this period before the hearing to try to resolve (some issues) and say, 'By the way, judge, we've agreed on a few more items and here they are,'" Ashley said.

Scott said she appreciates the acknowledgement of the district's success in some areas and its hard work. She said district officials are open to discussions with plaintiffs before the court hearing.

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