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Page school district agrees to $30,000 lawsuit settlement

By Chelsea DeWeese -- The Arizona Daily Sun

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (MCT) - Page Unified School District is nearing resolution of a longstanding class-action lawsuit that alleges the district segregates its two elementary schools into ''white'' and ''Indian.''

PUSD's governing board agreed Feb. 6 to pay $30,000 worth of plaintiffs' attorney fees in the lawsuit, part of a two-pronged settlement agreement.

The second part involves addressing underlying community issues related to ethnic disparities at the two schools, which will be addressed at future board meetings, PUSD Superintendent James Walker said.

This school year, Desert View School is 89 percent American Indian and 8 percent white.

In contrast, Lake View School is 54 percent American Indian and 41 percent white.

Walker said the decision to pay plaintiffs' attorney fees - rather than fight a costly court battle - made good economic sense for the school district.

Walker said the board will explore community outreach, school climate, professional training, employee recruitment and retention, curriculum, communication and the PUSD Indian Education Committee's role at the two schools.

However, he emphasized that PUSD denies the allegations and admits no wrongdoing. Also, the district does not plan to use forced busing or ethnic enrollment quotas to reduce the ethnic disparity between the two schools.

''Basically, it's a business decision for us to avoid spending any more money than we already have on this issue,'' Walker said.

Walker said the school district could have been stuck paying its own attorney fees on top of plaintiffs' attorney fees if it had fought the lawsuit. Plaintiffs originally sought $200,000 in attorney fees, he said.

A civil rights lawsuit was filed in November 2005 on behalf of nine other individuals. Those individuals are parents of Desert View Elementary School students, according to court documents.

The lawsuit alleges the vast majority of students attending Desert View in 2004 - '05 were American Indian and that these students were denied access to the district's other primary school, Lake View Elementary School, which has a more equitable student makeup.

The lawsuit alleges the district's ''open enrollment'' policy allows the segregation to occur and that PUSD's ''Elementary Reconfiguration'' plan admits segregation at the two schools.

Walker said the ethnic disparity between the two schools is because of an incident nearly a decade ago in which a Desert View Elementary School principal broke off from Desert View and created a K - 5 charter school called Lake Powell Academy, which has since closed.

Walker said the principal took a number of teachers and non-Native students with her to Lake Powell Academy and that Desert View Elementary School has since remained mostly Navajo.

The board is scheduled to vote on a final settlement March 6.

Plaintiffs couldn't be reached for comment.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Arizona Daily Sun, Flagstaff, Ariz. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.