Plaintiff's Lawyer Raises Doubts on Settlement of School Equity Suit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The chief attorney for a group of parents suing the Los Angeles Unified School District over alleged inequities in school financing said Tuesday it is unlikely they will accept a proposed settlement to be presented in court today.

But the attorney, Peter Roos, did not rule out the possibility that plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit might eventually reach a compromise to keep the case from going to trial.

The proposed settlement would equalize district spending so that each school receives the same amount per pupil to pay for such items as classroom supplies and teacher salaries. It was approved Monday night by the Los Angeles Board of Education but remains controversial because of an amendment that critics say would allow some schools to skirt the rules.

The plaintiffs in the suit, Rodriguez et al vs. the Los Angeles Unified School District, may ask for a one- to two-week delay in today's scheduled hearing before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to allow them more time to consult with community representatives about the proposed consent decree, Roos said.

But whether Judge Ralph Nutter grants the delay or sets a trial date, Roos said plaintiffs were not prepared to accept the proposed settlement today.

"It is clear that we will not accept the agreement, certainly not without a lot of consultation with client groups," Roos said. " . . . We have responsibilities to the entire Latino and black communities. Their interests are involved in this, and I think we need to consult with (them) and weigh whatever concerns and advice they give us on this."

Lawyers for the district and plaintiffs are scheduled to go to court today to discuss the status of the proposed agreement to settle the suit, filed in 1986 by a group of black and Latino parents who alleged that schools in poor and middle-class neighborhoods did not receive their fair share of district resources.

If one side does not accept the decree, the judge could set a trial date, possibly for this summer or fall, according to attorneys. If the principals in the case do accept the agreement, intervenors in the case, including United Teachers-Los Angeles and a group of parents challenging the decree, would be granted a subsequent hearing to voice their objections. The judge would have final approval of the agreement.

Despite more than a year of negotiations over the proposed settlement, the amendment approved by the school board last week sparked a new dispute that may ultimately force the case to trial.

The amendment would allow the district to claim it is in compliance with the decree if 90% of its more than 600 schools meet the agreement's equality standards within five years.

Roos said the prospect that the decree's 1997-98 deadline might pass with 10% of district schools indefinitely out of compliance was too big a compromise.

Peter James, the district's chief counsel in the case, said he hoped the plaintiffs would not allow the amendment to scuttle the entire negotiation process. "I have hopes that they'll recognize that what came out of the board meeting was the closest we could get to the settlement agreement that had been preliminarily negotiated," James said. "I hope it will be good enough."

Roos said there was a chance the two sides could reach agreement in the coming days or months, settling the lawsuit and avoiding a potentially lengthy, divisive trial.

"The court may decide on its own to set a trial date," Roos said of today's hearing.

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