Judge critical of Unit 4 in consent decree hearing

Judge critical of Unit 4 in consent decree hearing

CHAMPAIGN – Champaign school district officials will spend the next several months revamping a report on how they'll meet the goals of the district's consent decree.

U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade told administrators at a hearing Thursday he was not satisfied with the report they submitted last month, that it was "largely unresponsive" to his order and didn't address how they would speed up their progress. He said the plan was not an easily understandable road map and wasn't specific enough as to how the district could accomplish its goals.

McDade called the hearing because he was concerned with the district's ability to meet its goals by the scheduled expiration of the consent decree in 2009.

"We've passed the midway point of the consent decree, but regrettably, not necessarily the midway point of full implementation," he said, adding that how the district deals with remaining obstacles will determine if the consent decree expires peacefully.

He ordered the district to work with the plaintiffs on a revised plan addressing all the issues of the consent decree, to have it reviewed and approved by the monitoring team and to submit it to the court by Jan. 15, 2007.

While both sides agreed on the areas the district has been successful, and while they said they work together regularly, Thursday's hearing showed just how far apart they are in their views of the district's progress so far.

Sally Scott, one of the school district's lawyers, said there has been a "sea change" at all levels of the district since the last court hearing in 2002, and that administrators and teachers are working hard to meet their goals.

She said the district will eliminate unwarranted racial disparities, but objected to any "quotas" calling for specific numerical changes in the areas covered by the consent decree. She also is concerned the judge's order Thursday is requiring the district to do more than what was agreed upon in the consent decree, by creating interim goals.

Carol Ashley, the plaintiffs' attorney, said the judge's order was necessary and the district has to "change its mode of operation." She said the district has not collaborated the way it should, and she is frustrated that administrators haven't adopted more of the plaintiffs' suggestions and haven't discussed how they'll speed up their efforts.

"If this is the approach the district continues to take, we will never reach our objectives," she said.

Superintendent Arthur Culver and school board President Margie Skirvin said they'll begin working with the plaintiffs on a more specific plan. Culver said he believes the district has collaborated with plaintiffs.

"Even though we don't agree all the time, I don't think it's not true, honest collaboration," he said.

McDade noted the successful efforts of the school district in several areas, including the controlled choice program, the performance of Stratton Elementary School, and alignment of the curriculum. And he singled out several district leaders for praise, including Stratton Principal Sandra Duckworth, Deputy Superintendent Dorland Norris, Culver, and Mary Muller, director of the gifted and talented programs.

He acknowledged the mistrust the black community has of the school district, and urged parents to "call upon the strengths that we used to confront the segregation that we faced back in the old days." He said they must do a better job of making sure their children attend school and work hard.

And he spent some time addressing the negative perceptions of the consent decree. McDade said he was aware of the public debate over the decree, but said the district is bound legally to meet its objectives.

"It's a little too late to complain what shouldn't be, because we've got it," he said.

He reviewed the history that led to consent decree and said it was clear in 1998 that black students were not receiving a quality education. While the decree resolves a legal dispute, providing an equal education to black students should be part of a broader societal concern, McDade said.

The district "may have a moral duty to eliminate the achievement lag in black students," he said, adding the "benign indifference" of past school leaders exacerbated the problem. "Folks, in today's world, we can't afford an undereducated populace. We can't afford a racially divided nation."

He also said the racial fairness guidelines established by the consent decree are not quotas, but reasonable guidelines to benchmark the district's progress in eliminating unwarranted disparities in black students' education.

Urban League President Tracy Parsons said he hoped the court hearing will help the public better understand what the consent decree is about and how the district got to where it is now, and start a more honest dialogue about the consent decree.

Several speakers, including Parsons, addressed the issue of racial climate in the community. In contrast to school officials, Parsons questioned whether the district has made enough progress so that even a highly-motivated black student can succeed.

"I cannot stress to you enough how critical this is for us to find solutions, so in 2009 we have systems in place that cannot be turned back," Parsons told the judge, adding that Culver is under attack and white families are fleeing the district. "This has the ability to completely undermine everything we're doing."

Culver said he can only work on the climate in the schools, and "that hostile racial climate does not exist in our school district."

McDade said the district and plaintiffs need to prove the families who are leaving wrong.

"You have the talent to make those white people opting out want to opt in," he said. "This ought to encourage you people to put educational programs here in this district to make all those people running away beg you to let them come back."

He ended the 5-hour court hearing by telling the parties to trust him to do what is right.

"Trust me. I understand the issues, the task facing the school district and the community, the needs and hopes of the black community, the concerns expressed," McDade said. "To the extent God gives me power, I will do what is right."

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