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Death and Opportunity in Rockford, Illinois

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Our children are dying. We know it. We live and work among the ashes of yesterday’s tragedy, footsteps burdened by levity in every make-shift attempt at dressing, each tomorrow’s horizon bearing a new depth of grief to which we have become accustomed. In Rockford, Illinois, our children are dying.

Our children are dying. Rockford saw 27 murders in 2016. Ten of the victims were under age eighteen, with much of the crime driven by young people. Children are orphaned. Families are irrevocably devastated. The death and destruction cycles into daily life, with a significant increase in violent crime, in general. In September, the FBI declared that according to 2015 statistics, Rockford Illinois, the “Forest City” 75 miles west of Chicago, displaced Little Rock, Arkansas as the most dangerous city in the United States with a population of 100,000 to 200,000, with the most dramatic increases seen in robbery and aggravated assault.

Our children are dying. Not to be outdone by crime, our poverty rate holds its’ own significance. Presently, the poverty rate for African-Americans is 43.3 percent. Part-time workers have a poverty rate of 32.2 percent. For black men between 20 and 24, the unemployment rate is 70 percent. In the absence of stable jobs, many young men turn to drugs, alcohol and crime.

Our children are dying. As a local community activist and labor organizer here in my hometown, I’ve had the conversation a lot lately, in the coffee shop down the street, in the grocery store, and across the backyard fence. The question is always the same. What can we do? Something needs to be done, but what can we do? Neighbors compare stories of the guy with the clipboard who knocked on their door and asked them to sign some paper, promised change was coming, and never came back. Campaigns begin and end. Good people try. Good people stay and, yes, good people leave.

Our children are dying, and we feel powerless to stop it, yet, we can take steps that stand to have a direct effect on their lives. Paraproffesional workers, support staff, cafeteria workers, and school bus drivers employed by Rockford Public School District 205 have been in contract negotiations with the school board for months now. The issues are nothing new, workers are faced with health insurance they cannot afford, while making poverty wages. Families need more. The School Board says “no.”

A Paraprofessional staff person works almost nine months a year. Unlike teachers, they do not have an option to be paid during the summer. Unlike construction workers, they do not have access to unemployment during the “off season.” The average annual salary for these workers is $14,000 a year. With little if any wage increases in sight, the School District has proposed significant increases to employee health insurance costs.

There are approximately 275 school bus drivers, 500 paraprofessionals, and 165 cafeteria workers employed by Rockford School District. 32% of the workers live in one of Rockford’s four poorest neighborhoods, the same neighborhoods that saw the city’s highest percentage of violent crime in 2016. The students they serve are spread throughout the city, however much of their interaction is with at-risk or special needs youth.

Our children don’t have to die. Rockford has an opportunity to make a systemic change and end generational poverty in our most depressed neighborhoods, simply by tapping into the role of responsible employer. In May 2016 the White House released a study indicating that higher wages for entry-level workers has been demonstrated to correlate to a 3 to 5% reduction in overall crime. According to the study “Higher wages for low-skilled workers reduce both property and violent crime, as well as crime among adolescents. The impact of wages on crime is substantial … a 10 percent increase in wages for non-college educated men results in approximately a 10 to 20 percent reduction in crime rates.”

The money is there. Financial documents demonstrate that the Rockford Public Schools, District 205, is in good financial condition and should be able to afford reasonable and justifiable employee compensation increases.  The District has experienced strong revenue growth, a budget surplus in each of the past six years (also forecast for FY 2107), and the District maintains a high credit rating AA- from Standards & Poor’s.  The rating agency cited the District’s diverse local economy, strong financial performance, large fund balance, and low debt burden.

Now is time to rule the senseless murders and absolute fear that grips our community as unacceptable. 2017 can be the year we shed this overwhelming burden of death and rise to be a community of possibility. When I have those conversations, the ones with the question “what can I do?” I won’t sit silently and shrug. I’ll tell my neighbor, my mechanic, my friends, my postal carrier, my city: contact the Rockford Public School Board. Tell them to pay workers a living wage.

Our children don’t have to die.

Sara L. Dorner is Staff Representative for AFSCME Council 31.

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