Champaign schools' consent decree comes to an end

Champaign schools' consent decree comes to an end

CHAMPAIGN – Calling it a monumental day for the Champaign school district, board President Dave Tomlinson and other board members ended the district's consent decree case Wednesday night when they voted to approve a settlement agreement in the case.

To bring the case to an end, the school district agreed to adopt several policies regarding opening and closing schools, special-education referrals, and support for students in alternative programs.

But "there is no monitoring by a third party and there is no money involved," Tomlinson said. "No court oversight, no court monitor oversight, no attorney oversight.

"I can't tell you how pleased we are with this agreement," he continued.

The winner, he said, is the students, who are getting a better education.

"They are getting what they need. Their achievement is better," Tomlinson said. "And we will be able to control our own destiny."

The settlement came after a daylong conference in Peoria between the district and the plaintiffs, who represent the district's black families, with a magistrate judge presiding over the negotiations. It was finalized Wednesday morning.

It comes days before a judge was to decide whether the consent decree should be extended in three areas. A three-day hearing was set to begin Monday in Peoria.

Carol Ashley, the plaintiffs' attorney, said she is also satisfied with the deal. She said it addresses the concerns of plaintiffs and provides assurance that the district will complete the work that still needs to be done on the issues addressed by the consent decree.

She also said the district and the black community should be proud of what the consent decree accomplished.

Imani Bazzell, a parent and community activist who has been involved with equity issues in the district since the late 1990s, said a new equity committee that is part of the settlement will ensure black community members still have a seat at the table to influence policy decisions. She said it is "important for the community not to go to sleep because a settlement has been reached," and to continue to communicate that educational equity is a priority for the black community.

Superintendent Arthur Culver called the fulfillment of the consent decree "the finest hour in my career."

"This really is a community success," he added. He said the consent decree "gave us the leverage to do what needed to be done," and make changes that needed to be made because they are good educational practices.

Tomlinson added that the decree opened a much-needed dialogue on issues of race in Champaign, and he urged the community to continue to improve race relations in the city.

Tomlinson also praised Culver and his staff.

"These folks have had a tremendous amount of pressure. Arthur and his team were hired to bring this district through the consent decree, and they have done it," Tomlinson said. "They have brought the achievement gap much closer together. Teachers and support staff worked extremely hard to get us where we are, and we're going to continue to make these efforts."

Culver agreed.

"The achievement gap has closed significantly, but I am not pleased until there is no achievement gap."

The district did not reach an agreement on attorney fees that Ashley says she is owed by the district. She is to file a new fee petition by Aug. 14. Tomlinson and the district's attorney, Sally Scott, said the district's position is it will not pay fees related to efforts to extend the consent decree.

There are still some legal procedures required before the settlement agreement is formally adopted. The plaintiffs will file a motion for preliminary approval of the agreement by Aug. 14, and then the judge will decide whether a fairness hearing is required, Scott said. The hearing is an opportunity for members of the plaintiff class – black students and their parents or guardians – to comment on the agreement, she said.

Requirements of settlement agreement

The settlement agreement in the Champaign school district's consent-decree case requires the district to:

— Implement a policy regarding the opening and closing of any schools under which the district will consider the impact on black students, and all other students, including the transportation burden on those students. The district also agreed to have a third-party analysis of those issues.

— Pass a resolution reaffirming its commitment to adding elementary classrooms at Washington and Garden Hills elementary schools. The district plans to rebuild Washington and expand Garden Hills and establish magnet programs at both schools.

— Establish an "Education Equity Excellence" committee, to comprise district staff and a diverse group of community members. The district will serve as a multicultural committee to report on equity issues in a number of areas, and it will report to the superintendent. The district agreed that someone outside the district, likely from the University of Illinois College of Education, will lead the committee for at least its first year.

— Adopt a policy stating that special education referrals, identification and programs shall be operated in an educationally sound and non-discriminatory manner, and that the district will monitor those things.

"We have to do that by law, so we're formalizing that policy," Tomlinson said.

— Pass a resolution stating a commitment to continue operating the Academic Academy – an alternative program for high school students who are struggling in a traditional high school setting – for at least two more years. Tomlinson called the first year of the academy an "unqualified success."

— Provide support for and monitor students who are returning to their home schools from placement in an alternative program.

The two sides will file the settlement with the court today, and the district will then post the agreement on its Web site,

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