School District's Financial Tailspin Suit over Racial Bias Pained Community for More Than a Decade

By Malone, Tara | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 25, 2005 | Go to article overview

School District's Financial Tailspin Suit over Racial Bias Pained Community for More Than a Decade


Malone, Tara, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Tara Malone Daily Herald Staff Writer

Second of two parts.

When a federal magistrate in 1993 condemned discrimination in Rockford schools, he depicted a place no minority student wanted to be.

Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court first outlawed bias in education, the magistrate said poorer, minority students in Rockford were concentrated in separate schools and given unequal chance to succeed.

Black students dropped out more often than whites.

Minority students were kept in a gifted program - reserved for blacks and Latinos.

Latino students were kept on their buses, waiting for the bell, while white kids played outside.

Guidance Counselor Connie Goode remembers it well.

"They were not pleased with the arrival of children who were culturally different," said Goode, a retired Northern Illinois University professor.

Magistrate P. Michael Mahoney outlined these wrongs, and more, and charted a new course for the district - in a 767-page opinion.

Supporters called it justice. Critics called it social engineering.

Teachers called it unrealistic. Taxpayers called it unbearable.

Everyone called it painful.

"We're the shining example of where you don't want to go," current school board President Nancy Kalchbrenner said.

Looking through a window on the city's east side, Audrey Messina watched a steady blur of yellow.

A stream of school buses passed a school three blocks away to bring neighborhood children to other schools around town.

The buses followed the federal court's desegregation roadmap.

The racial mix of students in each school would come within 15 percent of the district average, the threshold known as racial compliance.

To accomplish that, most kids were plugged into a computer, rolled through the racial fairness roulette and handed a school assignment - often to a building across town.

Some parents welcomed the change, as their kids would be sent to better schools in better neighborhoods.

Most objected, frustrated their child could not attend a school across the street.

Most times, no one knew where they would be assigned, or why, until it was too late.

"There were just so many unanswered questions," said Donna Hayes, who sent her children to a private school when they were not allowed to attend their neighborhood school in Rockford. "You just didn't want to go through the hassle of worrying about it."

Ted Biondo, though, knew the havoc court-driven racial integration could bring.

As a teenager in St. Louis public schools, he watched desegregation unfold from his honors classroom. He read articles detailing racial discrimination cases in Kansas City and Boston.

Case after case confirmed what Biondo suspected: Court-ordered integration did little to help minority students learn but it often sparked a middle-class run from public schools and gutted home values.

"Education is the key, not a numerical quota system offered by the court," said Biondo, a Rockford resident and former school board member.

"I knew it would tear us apart," he said. "It tore every other community apart. Why would we be any different. We're human beings too."

Ronn Lyford saw the desegregation efforts unfold from Auburn, the only high school left on Rockford's west side.

Court intervention, the assistant principal knew, would not fizzle quickly.

The closing of West High, coupled with the court's racial integration plan, the west side's economic drought and a history of racial inequity, gave this lawsuit teeth.

"It kind of got the bandwagon going," Lyford said. "It really pointed out the inequities."

Ordered to level the field, the district built three schools on the west side and gave makeovers to schools on both sides of the river. …

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