U-46 desegregation trial: The impact

Second of four parts

In 2002, Rockford public schools closed the book on a 13-year episode that ripped the community apart and cost taxpayers more than $250 million.

That's when Rockford schools were declared “unitary,” meaning that after more than a decade of litigation in federal courts, the school system had succeeded in desegregating its buildings and programs.

Rockford is the nightmare scenario for leaders in Elgin Area School District U-46, which has been fighting its own desegregation lawsuit for six years, incurring close to $8.6 million in legal bills in the lead-up to trial, which begins Monday.

The good news for Elgin and the other 10 communities in U-46 is that the U-46 lawsuit stems from recent actions, mainly the board's approval of redrawn attendance boundaries since 2004, whereas Rockford had a legacy of de facto segregation going back to the early 1970s.

Still, experts say the Rockford case is a sobering example of what could happen to U-46 if the desegregation battle drags on for years.

“Institutional litigation rips the community apart,” said Steve Katz, who represented employee unions in the Rockford case and was later hired as the school district's general counsel. “There were rallies led by radio personalities. You thought you were in the Deep South in the '50s. That's not Elgin. You don't have that kind of history in Elgin, but the potential is there.”

That's a scary thought for U-46 leaders, who due to the recession have already cut $30 million from the district's budget, including more than 400 full-time staff. The district is still facing a $40 million deficit that could result in further cuts to staff and programs.

Besides the ongoing budget shortfall, U-46 also has grappled with cash flow shortages this school year as the state struggles to make payments to schools on time.

While U-46 avoided having to take out up to $30 million in short-term loans to cover payroll late last year, the district still may issue up to $25 million in bonds just to cover day-to-day expenses through the end of the school year.

The potential cost of fighting the litigation and complying with an unfavorable ruling, piling on top of the district's already considerable money issues, has some U-46 leaders worried.

“The cost of preparing (for trial) and getting to this point has had an impact on the classroom,” said school board President Ken Kaczynski, who was on the board when the controversial boundary changes were approved. Still, he said, “We believe we did what was in the best interest of students.”

Rockford's legacy

Although Rockford schools faced segregation claims as far back as the early '70s, the case that culminated in a 2001 federal appellate court ruling started in 1989, when a group of parents filed suit against the district in response to a controversial student assignment plan.

The plan, called “Together Toward a Brighter Tomorrow,” was to shutter the only naturally integrated high school in the district and several schools in predominantly black areas; many of the displaced students were then to attend a new mega-elementary school.

Parents who felt their concerns about the school boundaries were ignored by the school board recruited the Chicago law firm of Futterman Howard to represent them, the same firm that later filed suit against U-46.

In 1994, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Mahoney ruled against Rockford schools and two years later entered a complex and sweeping order requiring, among other things: racial quotas for cheerleaders, measures to close the achievement gap between whites and minorities, and “superseniority” for minority teachers.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997 reversed many of the provisions of Mahoney's order, calling some of them “ambitious schemes of social engineering” and warning that children “should not be made subjects of utopian projects.”

Still, the court rulings in “People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education” forced Rockford schools to introduce controlled choice, meaning each of its buildings had to roughly mirror the racial makeup of the district as a whole.

To create equal educational opportunities for minorities, the Rockford school system built three new schools, renovated others and hired consultants to run programs to close the achievement gap.

After decades of segregation, Rockford schools integrated in a few short years.

In 2001, the Seventh Circuit Court wrote: “The Rockford public schools have been desegregated. No longer are there any schools that are ‘white only' or ‘minority only,' or even approximations to such schools.”

But integration came at a cost. Fighting the People Who Care case and complying with federal orders cost Rockford schools $258 million — including an estimated $30 million just for the lawyers, Katz said.

To pay for all of it, the Rockford school board raised taxes and raided the civil litigation fund, all without voter approval, actions that were later declared illegal by the Illinois Supreme Court. The court ordered the district to repay $25 million to taxpayers who complained.

The staggering cost of the litigation took a toll on the district, which faced large budget shortfalls for a few years after the case ended.

“The district was almost belly-up in 2004,” recalls Katz, who became the district's general counsel that same year. “It was a disaster: huge layoffs, cuts. They were a couple days away from a state takeover. ... Once they lost the tort fund, that put tremendous pressure on the school district, and their normal revenue stream wasn't big enough to fund what was going on.”

After the case ended in June 2002, Rockford schools shifted to “modified choice,” which essentially allowed families to choose where to send their kids — without the mandatory racial quotas. Many families chose their neighborhood schools, and the results were predictable.

“The district no longer used race as a factor,” Katz said. “Once you take that out, the normal rules fall into place ... and you end up with racially identifiable schools.”

He added: “You call it the resegregation of the schools, and that's more or less true.”

Adding to Rockford's problems, the turmoil resulting from the lawsuit and the negative publicity surrounding the school system drove hundreds of families, many of them white, into private schools. The population shift compounded Rockford's money troubles and mitigated the benefits of integration and the educational programs put in place to support it.

“You permanently changed the nature of the school system,” Katz said. “If it's going to have the effect of diminishing the critical mass of Caucasian students, do you have the resources as a school district to recover from that?”

Even some of the well-intentioned folks who recruited Futterman Howard to file suit against Rockford schools view the People Who Care case as a mixed legacy.

In a 2009 interview, Ed Wells, one of the leaders of People Who Care, said: “People Who Care started as a group of people who wanted to advocate for children, to fight for the rights of west and old Rockford. What it became was a mechanism for creating billable hours for a lot of lawyers.”

Elgin Mayor Ed Schock, though, doesn't see Elgin becoming another Rockford. “It's a different time, different era,” he said. “The courts have pretty much abandoned busing and all those kinds of schemes communities struggled with. The solutions applied to Rockford don't seem to be in vogue anymore.”

Schock, a retired principal at Elgin's Coleman Elementary School, was among those who spoke out forcefully against the 2004 boundary changes. At the time, he hinted the city could pursue legal action to stop the changes, although he now says he never envisioned a lawsuit.

“I never anticipated a lawsuit or thought it would ever get to the point it's at now,” Schock said. “I'm hoping that whatever comes of the lawsuit does the least amount of damage to the city and the school district.”

U-46 desegregation trial: The issues

U-46 on trial

What is segregation, and when is it illegal?

Those questions are at the heart of the biggest desegregation case the Chicago suburbs have seen in decades.

That case, in which Elgin-Area School District U-46 stands accused of segregating blacks and Hispanics in inferior schools, is set to go to trial on Feb. 28.

In a four-part series, we will bring you up to date on the major claims and players in the lawsuit, as well as how the trial is likely to play out — and how the case could reshape Elgin and the surrounding communities for years to come.

<B>Friday:</B> The issues

<B>Today:</B> The impact

<B>Sunday:</B> The players

<B>Monday:</B> Anatomy of a trial