Illinois Public Media News
Tuesday's hearing over the consent decree was notable for how it was covered by the news media. Judge Joe Billy McDade allowed electronic media to record the hearing.
University of Illinois journalism professor Steve Helle says cameras and microphones have not been allowed in lower federal courts since 1994.
"The federal courts conducted an experiment between 1991 and 1994 with regard to cameras in the courts. And the experiment was positive, but the Judicial Conference nonetheless voted to ban cameras in the federal courts," said Helle. "There was reconsideration of that policy and they decided to allow cameras in the circuit courts of appeal but still ban them in the district courts."
Tuesday's consent decree settlement hearing took place in federal district court, were cameras and mics are normally banned. But Helle says judges have occasionally "fudged the rules" in civil cases.
In this case, Judge McDade granted an exception for TV cameras that was later extended to all media after a brief meeting with reporters Tuesday morning. McDade told reporters that he had made a mistake in initially approving TV cameras, which he had thought would be for one station's live coverage.
Helle says allowing cameras under any circumstances in a central Illinois federal district courtroom is unprecedented. And he doubts it will be repeated, unless federal court officials decide to change the rules.
What could be one of the final court hearings on the Champaign school district's consent decree is uncovering some doubt over a proposed settlement.
A federal judge invited written public comment on the proposal that would end seven years of court supervision over racial equity issues in Unit 4. On Tuesday, some of those commenters testified in person.
Before those people spoke, Champaign superintendent Arthur Culver answered a concern from Judge Joe Billy McDade that the public skepticism may stem from what happens in individual school - in other words, some staff may revert back to old habits or not share the same concern for equity.
I think it's clear that we're serous about this work," said Culver. "If our staff members aren't coming to work with the same vision and mission that we have set for this district, then there are consequences."
Part of the settlement includes a new committee to oversee future equity issues, such as alternative education or student assignment. Ardice James, with the National Council of African American Men worries that the Education Equity Excellence committee may not have any teeth.
"Who would this committee report to?" asked James. "I feel that this committee should report to the board and more or less be advisory. I also believe that any recommendation that this committee proposes, that the Board of Education should consider that recommendation very strongly."
But Carol Ashley, an attorney for the plaintiffs whose suit led to the consent decree, says that committee will be guided by a third party. It's not known when Judge McDade will decide to accept or deny the settlement.
The hearing was a rare event for a federal court in central Illinois. After initially ruling that television crews could videotape the courtroom hearing -- a rarity in the federal court system -- Judge Mc Dade responded to complaints from radio newspaper reporters and opened recording to all media. McDade told reporters before the hearing that he had made a mistake in believing he was approving one station's request to broadcast the entire hearing live, and he opened the hearing up to all recording devices out of fairness.
University of Illinois negotiators and members of the union that represents graduate student employees held another bargaining session Wednesday.
Graduate Employees Organization members aren't happy with the direction talks are going -- they protested outside the Levis Faculty Center, where negotiations continued with the help of a federal mediator. The grad students' previous contract expired last month.
Carrie Pimblott is the GEO's lead negotiator. She calls the university's proposal for no raises over three years unacceptable - in fact, she claims most union requests are being rejected.
"They came back and said all of the proposals we had suggested that were monetary were untenable because they didn't have the money to do it. And a lot of our non-monetary issues they rejected for various reasons," Pimblott said. "Essentially they came back with a lot of very egregious proposals that not only rejected our central values but suggested that they would want to erode our grievance rights, erode our rights as union workers."
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says they won't comment on negotiations while they're in progress.
Pimblott says the GEO wants to put pressure on the university through rallies - she says a labor action is not out of the question.
Illinois state lawmakers are joining legal experts, clergy and mental health officials in pressing Gov. Pat Quinn to address what they call a human rights crisis at the state's only supermax prison.
The group has sent a letter to the governor, urging him to intervene in the operation of the Tamms Correctional Center in Alexander County.
Critics say that's where some inmates have been held in solitary confinement for more than 10 years.
The letter asks Quinn to sign an executive order that stops the placement of mentally ill prisoners at Tamms, bans long-term solitary confinement unless an inmate is deemed a threat and sets up oversight.
The state's new corrections chief, Michael Randle, is reviewing Tamms' policies at Quinn's request.
Seven months after coming into office on a vow to clean up government, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed new laws making public records, board appointments and state spending more transparent.
Quinn was joined at Monday's signing ceremony by Attorney General Lisa Madigan. She'd championed the legislation to strengthen the state's public records laws.
The new law includes training so public employees know how to comply with public records laws, and it gives the attorney general's office more authority in public records cases.
Madigan's office sought changes in the law to prevent abuse by state offices that looked for ways not to comply or to delay.
Quinn also signed laws that make it easier to get information about the state's boards and commissions and state spending.
A coordinator of a tent community for the homeless wants to turn the project into a full-fledged not-for-profit organization.
In the meantime, Abby Harmon is asking Champaign city officials to practice what she calls "a higher level of ethics" and let the Safe Haven community keep camping on the grounds of St. Mary's Church, at least until winter sets in. Harmon says city regulations forbidding camping ought to be revisited in tough economic times.
"The city has a housing crisis on its hands that it needs to recognize," Harmon said. "Given the housing crisis, there are times when the pre-existing city ordinance is not working for the people. When the law no longer works for the people, the law needs to be modified."
Harmon says in the long term, the Safe Haven group would like to purchase "micro-houses" to replace tents for homeless residents. She describes them as 8x10-foot pre-fab rooms with solid walls that can accommodate heaters. They'd be served by a common kitchen-and-bath facility. Some Champaign council members have criticized the tent community, which was forced to leave its first home at Champaign's St. Jude Catholic Worker House because it violates city codes.
Champaign residents could start seeing more flyers on their cars and doorknobs soon, if the City Council goes ahead with plans to repeal a prohibition against the advertising practice.
Right now, only political and religious groups can leave a flyer on someone's doorknob in Champaign. And it's illegal to leave flyers of any sort on someone's windshield. But after a company that distributes such flyers argued that the ban violates the First Amendment, the council decided to revisit the issue. Council members unanimously endorsed ending the ban on doorknob flyers at Tuesday night's study session. But the council split 5 to 4 on ending the windshield flyer ban. For Councilwoman Marci Dodds, letting commercial handbills be plastered on windshields was too much.
"I don't have a problem with political and religious handbilling. I'm not fond of it because it just one of my pet peeves. But I don't see that commercial (handbilling) falls in the same category as that in the slightest," Dodds said.
But other council members said that the First Amendment wins out and that the council should repeal any law that they believe to be unconstitutional. Council member Tom Bruno said if Champaign resident gets an unwanted handbill on their car or door, they can exercise their own first amendment rights.
"I think a resident who gets an unwanted handbill should take the time to phone the business or the politician and say I'm really upset by this and I'm not going to do business with you," Bruno said.
The council will take a final vote on the issue at a later meeting.
The Champaign School Board passed resolutions, and introduced new policies last (Monday) night related to the recently concluded Consent Decree for racial equity.
The school board had promised to enact the resolutions and policies as part of its settlement with the Consent Decree plaintiffs. And Unit Four spokeswoman Beth Shepperd says board members are keeping their word.
"It means that our board is committed to equity and excellence for all students, and that we don't require court oversight to do what we believe is right," Sheppard said. "We want to show the community that we mean what we say."
The resolutions were passed unanimously. One reasserts Unit Four's commitment to the Consent Decree promise of adding new classrooms on Champaign's north side. The other resolution promises to continue the Academic Academy alternative program for at least two more years.
The policy proposals commit Unit Four to equity in its special education program, and in deciding school opening and closings. There will also be a new committee to monitor the school district's success in providing equity in education. The Champaign school board votes on the policy questions next month, after a 30-day public comment period.
The Consent Decree --- which for eight years dictated how the Champaign school district should address racial disparities in education --- is being lifted. The school board and attorneys for the plaintiffs reached an agreement yesterday (Wednesday) that's meant to lift the financial burdens of the consent decree, while keeping its accomplishments in place.
The Unit Four School Board ratified the settlement agreement on a 6 to nothing vote last night. And that gave Board President Dave Tomlinson the chance to say something he had been waiting to say for a long time.
"With this agreement, all court and attorney oversight for the decree has ended," Tomlinson announced to reporters following the school board meeting. "Unit Four has satisfied all of the requirements of the decree, and all motions to extend the decree will be dropped,"
Attorneys for the plaintiffs had filed motions seeking the extension of the Consent Decree on three issues --- north side classrooms, special education and alternative education. But plaintiffs' attorney Carol Ashley says the extension is no longer needed, because the settlement agreement commits Unit Four to several measures meant to follow-up on those issues --- from an equity policy committee to review the district's progress, to passage of board resolutions confirming plans for the additional classrooms.
Plaintiffs attorney Carol Ashley has worked on the case since the first civil rights complaints were filed 13 years ago. The Consent Decree agreed to in 2002 kept those complaints from going to trial, and Ashley says that was the best solution for all concerned.
"These are difficult issues to deal with, states Ashley. "But the collaborative process used int his case I think was beneficial to African American students, and to the community at large, and to the school district."
The settlement agreement means that a federal court hearing on the Consent Decree set for August 3rd in Peoria will not need to be held.
The Champaign School Board is holding a special meeting tonight, July 29th, to vote on a settlement of the Consent Decree for racial equity. The meeting is scheduled for 7 PM at the Mellon Administrative Center, 703 South New Street in Champaign.
School Board President Dave Tomlinson says representatives of both Unit Four and plaintiffs in the case reached an agreement at a settlement conference Tuesday to end the Consent Decree immediately. Details are to be released at a news conference at 8 PM, pending school board approval of the agreement.
The Unit Four school board agreed to the Consent Decree in 2001, to avoid a civil rights lawsuit on charges that African-American students were not receiving the same quality of education as white students. Besides changes in how classes are taught, and students assigned to schools, the Consent Decree has cost Unit Four millions of dollars in legal and consulting fees. School District officials were anxious to have the decree expire as scheduled this summer. But attorneys for the plaintiffs had been pushing for a partial extension.
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