By Marissa Alter
ROCKFORD (WREX) - Some powerful, angry, even accusatory words from Rockford School District Superintendent Dr. LaVonne Sheffield in her first State of the Schools address to the business community. Titled "Having the Courage to Put Children First," a running theme was allegations the community's racist.
"I'm not afraid to say in the years since the People Who Care lawsuit ended, when you consider what has gone on in discipline and tracking alone, Rockford schools may have found a way to raise discrimination from an art form to an exact science."
"I don't agree with that interpretation," countered Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey after the address. "We have to make sure we're not accusing the entire community of engaging in a level of conduct where it's going to be hard to lead the community anywhere if everyone feels alienated."
"I think that was a disservice to this community," added RAVE Board Chairman Mike Dunn. "I think she is a very smart woman, and I think she has a very horrendous task ahead of her. I think she's capable of handling that, but I think the first thing she has to do is stop attacking the citizens of this community."
Sheffield says racism is to blame in part for the district's failings. She pointed to a trend of disproportionate discipline for minority students compared to others.
She also brought up race when she touched on the administration's plans to cut honors classes for next year.
"The ugly truth is that honors classes are not rigorous but serve as a contemporary form of segregation."
The superintendent threw out some numbers to show a lack of difference between honors classes and general education classes. According to Sheffield, District 205's ACT average is 18.1. For honors students, it's barely higher, 18.7
"We saw some data, although strong in nature, that has to be drilled down further to really understand the nature of some of these issues," responded Rockford CHamber of Commerce President Einar Forsman. "But what I took away from that is she's committed, she's passionate, she wants to move forward."
The Rockford Chamber hosted Sheffield's State of the Schools at Cliffbreakers.
During the speech, she thanked school board members David Kelley, Jeanne Westholder, and Lisa Jackson for their service and said the community should too. Sheffield didn't acknowledge the rest of the board, who've been more critical of her leadership style.
Board Member Jude Makulec said she wasn't offended to be left off the list. She called the address "a viewpoint."
"We have differences of opinion, differences of perspective, our paradigms certainly are different, and that doesn't mean we can't work together," Makulec stated.
Alice Saudargas is the oldest serving school board member in Illinois. She fully supports Sheffield's goals, but not necessarily the way she conveyed them.
"I thought she gave a great speech. I really did. I'm not sure I agree with every single point that she made," Saudargas said. "As far as the financial aspects, she was right on target there."
Sheffield warned the crowd of impending financial crisis, the likes of which District 205 has never seen before. The 2012 budget outlook predict a $50 million deficit, and the pain doesn't end there. Sheffield expects to have to cut $35 million the next year and another $35 million the year after that.
Sheffield also addressed what she called personal attacks on her that are getting in the way of progress.
"I have sat quietly for nearly 18 months as people with adult-oriented agendas resort to lies and personal attacks to block reforms to benefit children. I will no longer remain silent. If you are genuinely a friend of public education, you won't stay silent either."
Sheffield called the attacks "abuse" and said dispelling rumors isn't in her job description. Near the end of the speech she talked about her commitment to Rockford.
"When I was a candidate for this job and ever since, people have asked me if I'm committed to the long haul in Rockford. My honest answer has always been yes. In recent days, I'm sad to say, I've started to wonder. As a bi-racial woman, the daughter of a German mother and African-American father, two people who married in 1950 and who fought the good fight for human justice, I have lived in both worlds -- and I will not serve as superintendent of a school system being sued for racial discrimination," said Sheffield.
The superintendent finished up the address stressing her faith in the Rockford community to turn things around.
"Because I believe in the potential of Rockford Public Schools, I won't stay silent about things that matter. I will have the courage to put children first and hold out the hope that this community can move past hatred, scorn and character assassination."
A copy of Sheffield's entire speech is linked along the left of this story.
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