Champaign School District looking for new revenue source to meet consent decree

By Alissa Groeninger

A court-ordered consent decree given to the Champaign Unit 4 school district in 2002 is set to expire in June but could be renewed with current efforts by officials to put a sales tax referendum on the ballot this April.

The decree requires the district to make an attempt at adding classroom seats in schools north of University Avenue to allow more students to attend these schools. In November, the District attempted to raise funds for this construction through a proposed 1 percent increase in the county sales tax.

The first attempt passed in Champaign, Urbana and Savoy but outlying communities were not able to pass the referendum. That option will be back on the ballot in April.

“As far as we’re concerned that is our third good faith effort,” said Gene Logas, chief financial officer for the district.

Logas said the money raised through the sales tax would pay to expand the buildings north of University Avenue so more students can attend. The district is looking to create magnet schools if they are able to add on to the buildings.

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The state legislature has not provided school districts with all the promised funds for this year, and there is concern that it will not because of a projected $2 billion deficit in Illinois.

“There’s absolutely no way that we can even do improvements to our buildings without a referendum, which is a shame,” said Kristine Chalifoux, member of the Champaign School Board.

The consent decree was given after two lawsuits in which black students sued the district claiming they did not have an equal opportunity to learn. It created guidelines to close the achievement gap between minorities and their peers.

The Champaign Unit 4 district does not believe the consent decree should continue.

“We have made every effort and have been tremendously successful in closing the achievement gap,” Chalifoux said.

The lawsuits claimed that the district’s practices in busing, educational services, student assignments, discipline and staffing created disparities between students of different races.

When it reviewed these claims, the federal Office of Civil Rights found that minority students were overrepresented in special education classes, underrepresented in gifted programs and statistical disparities between majority and minority students with regard to integration and discipline.

Carol Ashley, lawyer for the two students, said improvements have been made. She said Unit 4 has turned around many of the problems it once had.

Chalifoux said an enrollment jump this year, which she attributes to people choosing public schools over private schools because of the economy, and has left the district short on space. The district is expecting another big enrollment jump for the next school year. Kids are in temporary buildings and special needs children who are working on speech are being taught on gym stages.

“It’s hard to teach speech when you have kids screaming next to you. We need to improve conditions for the kids,” Chalifoux said.

Money raised through the sales tax could also help build a new school in Savoy.

Since the decree was given, the district has spent an estimated $2 million a year paying its own attorneys’ fees and the plaintiffs attorneys’ fees.

“It’s tremendously expensive and a drain on our limited resources,” Chalifoux said.

Champaign made progress in closing the achievement gap by reworking the curriculum in the schools that were underachieving before the consent decree and changing the system that designates where children go to school, Chalifoux said.

Ashley said the previous system violated state and federal laws because it promoted segregation.

The current system creates diversity because black students can attend schools throughout the district.

“(We are) making sure minorities are fairly represented in all aspects of schooling,” Chalifoux said.

She also said the district works to make sure minority students are not underrepresented in advanced programming. Ashley said that at the time of the consent decree, the district was not using the right factors to determine whether students should be in gifted programs. All fifth graders are now tested to determine proper class placement.

One indicator the district thinks demonstrates its progress is the number of minorities in honors programs and the grades these students are receiving in comparison to their peers.

“If (minorities) all fail then you haven’t accomplished anything,” Chalifoux said.

Chalifoux acknowledges that the district’s work in closing the achievement gap is not over.

“There’ll always be work to be done,” she said. “We need to make sure that all of our kids have the same ability to learn.”