The Rockford Files

Robbing Paul to Pay Paul

After 12 years under federal rule, Rockfordians are looking forward to the end of the People Who Care school-desegregation lawsuit on June 30, 2002.  If the district administration and the school board have their way, however, the fat lady may not actually begin singing for another ten years.

One of the many elements that has made the Rockford case unique is the particular form of judicial taxation used to fund almost a third of a billion dollars in court-ordered “desegregation remedies”—everything from busing to magnet schools to pizza parties to owl pellets (don’t ask).  Using a novel interpretation of the Illinois Tort Immunity Act (which was designed to provide governmental entities with funds to pay one-time settlements in lawsuits), the school board, for nine years, levied an annual tax ranging from about $15 million to $30 million.  Unlike normal tax increases, which have to be approved by referendum, the tort tax was levied without public approval, often at the order of federal magistrate P. Michael Mahoney.

Through the efforts of a crusading attorney, Michael O’Brien (who took the case pro bono), and a citizen watchdog group, Rockford Educating All Children (R.E.A.CH.), up to 16,000 local taxpayers each year protested the tort-tax levy.  Finally, last year, the Illinois State Supreme Court declared the district’s use of the tort tax illegal...

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