ROCKFORD – School district officials in Rockford spent $258 million trying to solve desegregation issues that trailed on in the courts for 13 years.
Nancy Kalchbrenner, president of the school board, said officials still are struggling with the aftermath.
"The racial issues are still very difficult," she said. "There are a lot of concerns. We're discussing our student assignment. It's a concern in the business community because of economic development. Our schools are not in the traditional American format. There's still a lot of distrust and concern, especially in the African-American community."
Stephen Katz, who represented the teachers' union during those lengthy negotiations, is now general counsel for the district.
Katz said the first civil rights action against Rockford schools was filed in 1989, and the district was released from its monitors in 2002. He said concerns about the schools go back to the 1970s.
"There had been a desegregation lawsuit in the early '70s, but it wasn't pursued vigorously," he said. "The district ended up engaging in one-way busing, taking black kids to the white side of town. The second lawsuit filed in 1989 arose because of the reorganization plan named, unfortunately, Toward a Brighter Tomorrow."
The plan was to close the only naturally segregated high school in the city and several schools in the black neighborhood.
"Members of the minority community wanted to discuss that, but they were blown off," Katz said.
They filed a complaint followed by a consent decree, and the district backed off some elements of the reorganization but kept the high school closed. A second complaint turned the case into a class-action lawsuit.
"Instead of just attacking the reorganization plan, it attacked the segregation of the district, calling it a dual schools system going back 40 years with a misallocation of resources to the majority side of town, favoring whites," Katz said.
The second complaint resulted in a second consent decree calling for a court monitor. Meanwhile, with legal bills growing, the district dipped into its tort fund to cover them. The second order also challenged teaching, saying it was better on the east (white) side of the city than it was on the west (black) side. The union challenged those claims, and the court threw them out.
"It ruled you can't wipe out third-party rights unless the court finds the district guilty," Katz said. "That led in 1993 to a liability trial in Rockford focusing on whether Rockford was running an unconstitutional dual school system. It was truncated because the district admitted facts showing it ran a dual system."
The union contract, however, was found not to be the problem.
"The remedy trial started in early fall of 1995," Katz said. "It concluded in May of 1996. Periodically during the trial, the court would issue rulings about remedies. They were massive."
The district had to introduce controlled choice in every school. It was ordered to eliminate an achievement gap, but the district challenged that and it was tossed out.
"The court said that's ludicrous because so many factors contribute to it," Katz said.
But it didn't take long before Rockford was the most perfectly integrated district in the country, run by a court-appointed "master" and other administrators who came in just to keep an eye on desegregation practices.
In 1999 and 2000, Rockford went back to court to prove it had eliminated segregation. Katz said the district court rejected those claims but the circuit court restored Rockford's self-control.
"Taxpayers spent $258 million, and the achievement gap got worse, test scores got worse, everything got worse," Katz said. "We were integrated by color of skin, but that's where the achievement ended. Everything else went south. The district got three new school buildings, lawyers collected $30 million and the rest of the money achieved nothing. "
Today, Rockford still uses a school choice system, but it's voluntary and race neutral. All students are allowed to pick the school they want to attend, and buses run everywhere.
"Integration has pretty much disappeared," Katz said. "We now have loads of racially identifiable schools. Any law firm paid by the taxpayers made a lot of money. That worked. Schools got built, we got rid of old schools, and construction companies made money. But as far as improving education in Rockford, I don't think anyone would say it's improved. Throwing loads of money at the problem didn't solve it."
And the district was left in dire financial shape because it used its tort fund money to pay lawyers. After a challenge by taxpayers that went to the Illinois Supreme Court, the district was ordered to pay back $25 million.
To repay taxpayers, the board asked voters to approve a temporary 58-cent increase in the education fund tax rate. Last week, the board was asked to adopt a resolution to make that tax permanent.
"We're recovering financially," Kalchbrenner said. "We've had to make huge cuts. We still have real concerns about student assignment and that's re-examining old emotions, deep, difficult community issues. We're stepping carefully into that. There are still a lot of residual issues."