The Rockford schools controversy, approaching its tenth anniversary, is taking on the mythic stature of the Little Rock, Cleveland, and Kansas City cases. While still in its infancy (as desegregation cases go) and relatively inexpensive (only $166 million through the end of the 1997-98 school year, compared to $2 billion in Kansas City), the Rockford case is notable for both the determination of its opponents and the rapidity with which the city is being destroyed.
The determination of its opponents was evident at The Rockford Institute’s second annual “Rally for Rockford” at the Rockford Woman’s Club in February. Over 500 people braved a late winter rainstorm to join Rockford Institute president and Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming, Congressman Don Manzullo, legal scholar Stephen Presser, local lawyer Michael O’Brien, and three Rockford School Board members in their call for an end to judicial taxation. Despite attempts by the local chapter of the NAACP to scuttle the rally-including intimidating the school board members —enthusiasm was high, as audience members sported buttons reading “Welcome to Occupied Rockford—P. Michael Mahoney, Presiding.”
Pleased with the response to his speech at the previous rally. Congressman Manzullo requested to be on the program again, to update Rockfordians on his legislative efforts to restrict the ability of judges to raise taxes. In addition, he has introduced a new bill which would require federal courts to pay any costs associated with a desegregation “master” ordered by the courts—an idea developed by John Stoeffler, president of the Madison Forum, whose article, “Judicial Taxation: The States Respond,” appeared in the February 1998 issue of Chronicles.
Michael O’Brien, the local attorney who represents—pro bono— Rockford’s 16,000 tax protesters, discussed the progress of his suit, which is now headed for the Illinois Supreme Court. Mr. O’Brien argued that judicial taxation results from the destruction of the separation of powers, a theme that was echoed by Stephen Presser, who discussed the federal courts’ abuse of the 14th Amendment to federalize a whole range of issues—from abortion to religion to education—that are properly the province of states and local communities.
For some Rockfordians, the rally was their first opportunity to hear school board members Ted Biondo, Patti Delugas, and David Strommer explain their opposition to the federal court’s “remedies.” In speeches that belied the local Gannett paper’s attempt to portray them as “rabble-rousers” unconcerned with education, the board members eloquently set forth a plan to regain local control of Rockford’s schools, and to return a sense of sanity to both curriculum and student discipline.
The evening was capped off by Thomas Fleming’s rousing speech recounting the political and legal victories of the past year. Lambasting the local Gannett paper (LGP) for its biased coverage of those opposed to federal control of Rockford’s schools, Dr. Fleming remarked, “If you can believe the paper, you would think this crowd is a lynch mob.” Recalling the slogan of the previous rally—”Vote, Organize, and Protest”—Dr. Fleming urged Rockfordians to continue their battle at the ballot box, in the courts, and on the streets.
The response of the LGP was predictable. After refusing to provide advance coverage of the rally (even though advance coverage of much smaller events is routine), the LGP printed a short story on page three, which quoted Dr. Fleming as saying simply, “You would think this crowd is a lynch mob.” But the LGP’s coup de grace was still to come. A month after the rally, the paper ran a two-part, front-page series on the League of the South (of which Dr. Fleming is a founding board member), under the ridiculous headline, “New Confederates Spark Outrage in Rockford.” Replete with lies and distortions (as well as excerpts from a Ku Klux Klan website!), the articles and the accompanying editorial were clearly meant to stifle opposition to the desegregation case. But the LGP quickly discovered that its strategy had backfired, as the citizens of Rockford rallied to the Institute’s side, both on talk radio and in letters to the editor. Perhaps in part because of the contempt that the citizens of Rockford have for the LGP, the Chicago Tribune is now considering a Rockford bureau and a Rockford edition, welcome news for a town that’s been “chained” to one newspaper for too long.
But amid the signs of hope, the case goes on, and Rockford may be approaching the breaking point. For the 1997-98 school year, blacks and Hispanics made up 40 percent of the public school population. The school district’s initial estimate for 1998-99 was a 44 percent minority population, but the final number is over 46 percent, and the current projection for 1999-2000 is a 50/50 split. Historically, when the minority student population in a district under a desegregation order hits 50 percent, middle-class flight (both white and minority) becomes unstoppable. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that “For Sale” signs will be popping up like mushrooms here in Rockford. With the third-highest property tax rates in the nation and some of the lowest property values, many homeowners may find it cheaper and easier to default on their mortgages and walk away.
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