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Education researchers give District 205 improving marks

The Rockford School District always is at the center of any conversation about Transforming Rockford.

The most recent Illinois State Board of Education data, which is from the 2015-2016, showed that just 19 percent of its students were ready for the next level, meaning they met or exceeded state standards on the annual PARCC tests. The state average for 2015-2016 was 34 percent.

A recent media report highlighted the fact that District 205 has become highly segregated again since eliminating a controlled-choice system in favor of school zones and laid much of the blame on the district’s poor test scores on school zones. Education Cities, a nonprofit network of 30 organizations in 25 cities working to increase the number of great schools in the United States, actually gives District 205 a slightly above average grade and believes the quality of education in the district has been steadily rising throughout the decade.

According to Education Cities (, in the 2014-2015 school year, District 205 earned an EEI score of 52.9 with 50.0 being the benchmark for average. The EEI – Education Equality Index – score is a very convoluted ranking where Education Cities looked at the percent of students that score at or above state tests and weighs it with its percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches.

The vast majority of educational research shows the strongest correlation to test scores isn’t with race, instead it’s with income. A district comprised of mostly middle- and upper-class students is going to outperform a school of lower-income students regardless of race.

That’s why it’s not statistically valid to compare Rockford with any other school district in Boone, Winnebago, Ogle or even Stephenson County. Over the past 45 years, Rockford has become one of the poorest school districts in the state. According to Education Cities, in the state of Illinois only Chicago with 86 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches was higher than Rockford’s 84 percent.

Education Equality Index scores


EEI Score

FRL Pct.

Joliet, Ill.



Chicago, Ill.



Elgin, Ill.



Rockford, Ill.



Naperville, Ill.



Springfield, Ill.



Aurora, Ill.



Peoria, Ill.



·        * FRL means “free and reduced-priced lunch”

Seeing Rockford ranked above Naperville will be a shock for most people. According to ISBE numbers, 65 percent of Naperville’s students were at or above state standards. But only 17 percent of Naperville’s students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. What Education Cities essentially is saying is that based upon the wealth of the students in Naperville, their PARCC scores should be higher.

Perhaps even more importantly, Rockford’s EEI scores have been steadily improving.

EEI trend























































If you dig deeper into the data by looking at individual schools, at first glance, you see some correlations between race and scores. The top two schools in Rockford were Washington Gifted School and Marshall Middle School, which also had the highest percentage of white students at 68 and 58 percent respectively. Those also house the gifted programs in Rockford and have markedly fewer poor students. The FRL percentage of Washington was just 31 percent and 45 percent at Marshall. Those two schools ranked among the top 60 nationally in terms of EEI scores at 99.7 and 99.5.

The first zoned school on the list was Thompson Elementary with an EEI score of 78.3. Thompson was 50 percent white in 2014-2015, while African-American and students of two or more races made up 24 percent of the district.

Gregory Elementary was next with EEI score of 68.7. Its racial makeup was 40 percent Caucasian, 18 percent African-American, 15 percent Asian and 7 percent two or more races.

Swan Hillman though was fifth on the list with an EEI score of 64.1 and just 18 percent of its student-body was Caucasian and 55 percent was Hispanic.

Amongst the 23 schools that had an EEI score of above 50 – the benchmark – six had higher percentages of black students than white students: Barbour Two-Way Language Immersion Magnet, Galapagos Rockford Charter School, Kishwaukee Elementary, West Middle School, Legacy Academy and Conklin Elementary.

If you add in the students of two or more races, then the number of schools where African-American students outnumbered the white students jumps to 10: Swan Hillman, Nelson Elementary, RESA and Whitehead Elementary.

At the other end of the spectrum, of the 10 schools with the lowest EEI scores, five had the highest percentage of African-American students. Again though the scores tracked most strongly with income. Eight of the 10 schools on the bottom 10 had student populations where 98 or 99 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches.

This is a long-winded explanation that suggests it isn’t the racial makeup of the district or of particular schools that is holding down test scores, it’s the fact that so many middle- and upper-income families have left the district. Of course, this doesn’t mean District 205 doesn’t have its problems. Afterall, Education Cities is saying Rockford Public Schools is doing an average job of educating its students. Transform Rockford’s goal is to make the area one of the 25 best places to live in the country.

Looking at the Education Cities data, that means we should be striving to learn from cities such as Brownsville, Texas, which earned an EEI score of 79.9 even with a population where 94 percent of their students received free or reduced-priced lunches, or El Monte, California, which got a 65.8 EEI score even with a FRL percentage of 93 percent.

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New database reveals what’s in your water

The Environmental Working Group on July 26 released a public database on drinking water. The group analyzed more than 30 million state water records in a project inspired by the health crisis in Flint, Michigan. Click here to see what’s in your water.

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Quickly changing retail industry will force changes in Rockford-area thinking

A story in Time Magazine this month highlighted a trend that should be concerning city and county leaders across the country, “The Death and Life of the Shopping Mall.”

According to industry estimates quoted by Time, by 2022 one out of every four shopping malls in the United States will be out of business. We’ve already seen this trend hit the Rock River Valley. Winnebago County used to be home to malls by the name of Colonial Village, Machesney Park Mall and North Towne Mall to go with CherryVale Mall.

Colonial Village now is home to Heartland Community Church, Machesney Park Mall’s interior space long since closed and it has a couple of department stores left facing Illinois 251 and Practice Velocity on the other side. North Towne long ago was taken over by a series of discount stores.

The trend though is larger than shopping malls as more and more turn to online shopping where everything you need is a click away. More than 4,000 retail stores are being closed by major retailers in 2017 alone. These include such iconic names as Gymboree, Sears and Kmart, J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Payless ShoeSource.

This shift to online shopping is quickly going to hurt the budgets of municipalities who rely on sales tax revenue to help pay for police salaries and new roads. It appears to already be hitting the Rockford area. According to Illinois Department of Revenue figures, in fiscal year 2017 – July to June – the amount of sales tax revenue collected by retailers in Winnebago County and returned to the municipalities where the items were purchased declined from the year before.

In FY2017, Winnebago County’s 11 incorporated cities and villages and Winnebago County received $40.12 million back from the state in sales tax revenue compared with $40.22 million in FY 2016. It was just a slight decline but it marked the first year-over-year decline since 2010, the depths of the Great Recession when the area unemployment rate tumbled to 19 percent.

Winnebago County has had a remarkable turnover in leadership in 2017. Rockford, Winnebago County, Loves Park and Machesney Park have new leaders in place. Rockford, Loves Park and Machesney Park, as well as Cherry Valley, Roscoe and Rockton, have been able to count on continually rising sales tax revenues to fund city services. That may no longer be the case and instead leaders will have to contend with what to do with large retail spaces that no longer have new chains eager to move in.

We’ve seen some of this already. The former space that was home to K’s Merchandise for years on Mulford Road now is a ServiCom call center. But the old Menards building on Illinois 173 and Illinois 251 – the first major store to open on that shopping corridor – remains unfilled along with several large vacancies on East State Street. Rockford already is home to many buildings that were part of a boom gone bust. Any trip around older sections of Rockford will showcase the manufacturing buildings of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, that now either have been turned into storage or sit idle. Is the Big Box space next?

Sales Tax Revenue Trends
Fiscal Year


Pct. Ch. County total

Pct. ch.

FY 2009

$22.69 million

$37.81 million

FY 2010

$20.79 million

-8.3% $35.07 million


FY 2011

$21.39 million

2.9% $36.26 million


FY 2012

$22.15 million

3.5% $37.85 million


FY 2013

$22.18 million

0.2% $38.07 million


FY 2014

$22.40 million

1.0% $38.64 million


FY 2015

$23.05 million

2.9% $40.11 million


FY 2016

$23.38 million

1.4% $40.22 million


FY 2017

$23.30 million

-0.3% $40.12 million


Source: Illinois Department of Revenue

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Rockford is a pretty good driving town

According to insurance giant Allstate, Rockford is one of the 50 best cities in the United States when it comes to avoiding collisions.

Rockford came in 49th on a list of the top 200 cities on Allstate’s annual America’s Best Drivers report. Rockford city drivers average 9.8 years between insurance claims.

Rockford’s 2017 ranking is actually a return to form. We’ve been in the top 200 every year Allstate has released this list and ranked as high as 25th in 2014 before dropping to No. 57 in 2016.

The top 10 cities in terms of avoiding collisions:

  1. Kansas City, Kansas
  2. Brownsville, Texas
  3. Madison, Wisconsin
  4. Huntsville, Alabama
  5. Cape Coral, Florida
  6. Boise, Idaho
  7. Laredo, Texas
  8. Port St. Lucie, Florida
  9. McAllen, Texas
  10. Olathe, Kansas

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Rockford region among 100 fastest growing in real personal income

ROCKFORD – The real personal per capita income of the Rockford metropolitan area grew 4.4 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, rising at a faster rate than Illinois and United States as a whole.

Real personal income is a more complicated measurement from the BEA. It measures the real personal income of an area and adjusts it to the state’s regional price parity and national personal consumption index. In simpler terms, it’s the income of an individual or group after taking into consideration the effects of inflation on purchasing power.

According to BEA data, the real personal per capita income of Boone and Winnebago counties rose from $38,485 in 2014 to $40,183 in 2015. The 4.4 percent increase from 2014 was greater than the 3.3 percent increase experienced by the United States (growing from $42,523 to $43,925) and the 3.4 percent by the state of Illinois ($44,679 to $46,209.)

In fact, the Rockford MSA tied for 80th best year-over-year increase out of 382 metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S. and it was the 13th highest in the Midwest.

The 2015 numbers are a continuation of an encouraging trend. Since 2008, the Rockford MSA real personal per capita income has outpaced the nation as a whole four times in the past seven years.

A look at state data showed that the Rockford MSA gained about 2,200 jobs from 2014 to 2015. The largest gains were in leisure and hospitality (600 jobs gained), trade and utilities (600), retail trade (500) and manufacturing (400).

Real personal per capita income



Pct. ch.


Pct. ch.

Rockford MSA

Pct. ch.






















































Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

Fastest rising real personal per capita incomes
in Midwestern MSAs

Metropolitan Area



Pct. ch.

Sioux Falls, S.D.




Flint, Michigan




Lawrence, Kansas




Sioux City, Iowa-Neb.




South Bend, Ind.-Mich.




Monroe, Michigan




Michigan City-LaPorte, Ind.




Mankato, Minnesota




Detroit, Michigan




Muskegon, Michigan




Bay City, Michigan




Battle Creek, Michigan




Rockford, Illinois




Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis



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Jobs boom missing Rockford area

SPRINGFIELD – The United States has been on a steady climb since the Great Recession wiped out careers and savings for millions – that progress still hasn’t really come to Rockford.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States has added 15.8 million jobs since April 2010, the most recent comparable month, growing from 130.14 million jobs in April 2010 to a preliminary estimate of 146 million this April. That’s 12.2 percent more jobs since the economy bottomed out in 2010.

In Winnebago County, we were making similar progress, but that trend has reversed itself over the past several months. The Rockford area bottomed out earlier than the United States. According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, employment hit the bottom of the Great Recession cycle in 2009 when just 124,425 were employed in April. By April 2016, that had grown to 132,027, an increase of 6.1 percent.

It appears we’ve lost those minimal gains. The state estimated that total employment for this April was 129,778, a 1.7 percent year-over-year decline.

It isn’t just Winnebago County that’s struggling to continue to grow jobs. Employment in the state as a whole was estimated to be 6.14 million, down 0.3 percent from 2016. It marked the fifth time in the past six months that employment in Illinois was down year over year.

Hopefully, the 2017 losses are temporary. Workers at the Fiat-Chrysler assembly plant in Belvidere have been laid off for several months as the plant is retooled to build the Jeep Cherokee. The vast majority of the workers in the Boone County plant live in Winnebago County.

Job gains – U.S., Illinois, Winnebago County


United States


Winnebago County

Month, year


Pct. ch.


Pct. ch.


Pct. ch.

April, 2007




April, 2008







April, 2009







April, 2010







April, 2011







April, 2012







April, 2013







April, 2014







April, 2015







April, 2016







April, 2017







Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics for the United
States. Illinois Department of Employment Security
for Illinois and Winnebago County



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Property owners don’t mind taxes – as long as they are getting value

Of all the issues facing Rockford, property taxes is perhaps the most complex.

According to, the median property tax bill in Winnebago County is $3,056 per year, which ranks the county as the 151st highest taxed county out of the 3,143 in the United States. Obviously, that’s not good.

But a low tax bill does not always equate to a more desirable place to live. People are willing to pay higher taxes if they believe they are getting value for their money. I looked at the list of 100 best mid-size communities to live list and found the median property taxes paid of the counties of the top 25 cities. Nearly half, 12 to be exact, had a higher median property tax bill.

Count (city), median property tax bill

  1. Santa Clara County (Palo Alto, Calif.), $4,694
  2. Arlington County (Arlington, Virginia), $4,564
  3. Middlesex County (Newton, Mass.), $4,356
  4. Howard County (Columbia, Maryland), $4,261
  5. Dane County (Madison, Wis.), $4,149
  6. Chittendon County (Burlington, Vermont), $4,096
  7. Alameda County (Pleasonton, Calif.), $3,993
  8. Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor, Mich.), $3,913
  9. Tompkins County (Ithaca, New York), $3,815
  10. Montgomery County (Rockville, Maryland), $3,690
  11. King County (Bellevue, Washington), $3,572
  12. Frederick County (Frederick, Maryland), $3,082

In fact, there were just five on the Livability list that could truly be considered low tax areas, those with median property tax bills below $2,000 – Riley County, Kansas; Olmstead County, Minnesota; Williamson County, Tennessee, Wake County, North Carolina and Larimer County, Colorado.

Ironically, two major public companies that got started in Rockford and grew to be billion dollar operations moved their headquarters from Winnebago County to two of those counties with lower tax burdens.

Of course, most of the communities on the Livability top 100 list are high-income towns. That’s part of the reason they are on the list in the first place. Still, three counties considered to be among the top 25 mid-sized cities to live have a higher property tax bill to income ranking:

County (City), median property tax bill, tax bill as percent of income

  1. Tompkins County (Ithaca, New York), $3,815, 5.30%
  2. Chittendon County (Burlington, Vermont), $4,096, 5.25%
  3. Dan County (Madison, Wisconsin), $4,149, 5.06%

Winnebago County’s median property tax bill as a percent of income was 4.99%.

It’s when you look at Winnebago County’s property tax bill as a percent of the median fair market value of a home here then we truly stand out … in a bad way. Every single county in the top 25 paid a lower percentage of their median fair market home value.

County (City), median property tax bill, median fair market value – percentage of FMV.

  1. Williamson County (Franklin, Tenn.), $1,879, $335,800 – 0.56%
  2. Albermarle County (Charlottesville, Va.), $2,219, $349,800 – 0.63%
  3. Larimer County (Fort Collins, Colo.), $1,570, $246,000 – 0.64%
  4. Santa Clara County (Palo Alto, Calif.), $4,694, $701,000 – 0.67%
  5. Alameda County (Pleasanton, Calif.), $3,993, $590,900 – 0.68%
  6. Montgomery County (Rockville, Maryland), $3,690, $482,900 – 0.76%
  7. Arlington County (Arlington, Virginia), $4,564, $571,700 – 0.80%
  8. Wake County (Cary, North Carolina), $1,793, $222,300 – 0.81%
  9. King County (Bellevue, Washington), $3,572, $407,700 – 0.88%
  10. Frederick County (Frederick, Maryland), $3,082, $349,500 – 0.88%
  11. Hoaward County (Columbia, Maryland), $4,261, $456,200 – 0.93%
  12. Thurston County (Olympia, Washington), $2,472, $257,800 – 0.96%
  13. Middlesex County (Newton, Mass.), $4,356, $420,800 – 1.04%
  14. Olmstead County (Rochester, Minn.), $1,891, $174,000 – 1.09%
  15. Cumberland County (Portland, Maine), $2,973, $248,400 – 1.20%
  16. Riley County (Manhatten, Kansas), $1,903, $154,800 – 1.23%
  17. Johnson County (Overland Park, Kansas), $2,664, $209,900 – 1.27%
  18. Story County (Ames, Iowa), $2,076, $156,000 – 1.33%
  19. Johnson County (Iowa City, Iowa), $2,526, $177,000 – 1.43%
  20. Burleigh County (Bismarck, N.D.), $2,385, $152,900 – 1.56%
  21. Chittendon County, Burlington, $4,096, $254,700 – 1.61%
  22. Dane County (Madison, Wis.), $4,149, $230,800 – 1.80%
  23. Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor, Mich.), $3,913, $216,200 – 1.81%
  24. Allegheny County (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), $2,553, $115,200 – 2.22%
  25. Tompkins County (Ithaca, New York), $3,815, $162,100 – 2.35%

Winnebago County’s median fair market value, according to, was $128,100, which means homeowners are paying 2.39% of their fair market value in taxes.

The Rockford area’s bizarre tax burden has no easy fix. If taxing bodies actually worked together to vastly lower the amounts they asked from tax payers it could shoot our unemployment rate higher.  In 1980, just four of our top 20 employers were public taxing bodies. Eight of the top 10 were manufacturing companies – Chrysler, Sundstrand, Barber-Colman, Atwood Industries, Ingersoll Milling Machine, Textron Inc. and Warner-Lambert Co.

Today, six of the top 20 are taxing bodies – Rockford School District, Winnebago County, Rockford Park District, City of Rockford, Harlem School District and Belvidere School District.

The only real long-term solution is to continue to push taxing bodies to be more efficient with the dollars they receive and to turn around all of the areas that keep our property values down – crime, jobs, infrastructure, education – to at least give homeowners more value for those property tax dollars spent.

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Want to live longer? Grow the economy

A groundbreaking study released earlier this month showed income inequality leads to life expectancy inequality.

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, as of 2014 there was a gap of 20.1 years between the counties with the shortest and longest typical life spans based on life expectancy at birth.

Researchers analyzed birth and death records from every U.S. county between 1980 and 2014.

Winnebago County was in the higher ranges of life expectancy throughout the time period studied. As of 2014, the life expectancy of someone born in Winnebago County was 77.95 years. The highest expectacy was 87.36 years and the lowest was 66.92.

What was fascinating though is the fact that Winnebago County’s life expectancy has followed its economic fortunes. As manufacturing in the U.S. was squeezed by globalization, incomes here have not kept pace.

  • In 1979, the per capita personal income of someone in the Rockford area was $9,643 compared with $9,616 of the typical person in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
  • In 1980, the U.S. per capital personal income passed Winnebago County, $10,633 to $10,287.
  • As late as 1995, Winnebago County residents were still making about 95 percent of what a typical U.S. person was earning. The Winnebago County per capita income was $23,467 in 1995 compared with $24,604.
  • As of 2013 though, people in Winnebago County were earning 81 percent of what the U.S. makes. The per capita personal income of someone in Winnebago County was $37,505 compared with the U.S. per capita personal income of $46,177.

Health care, as everyone knows, is an expensive business. As our incomes have slipped so has our life expectancy when compared with the rest of the country.

  • In 1980, the life expectancy of someone born in Winnebago County was 74.12 years. In the U.S. the life expectancy was 73.75 years.
  • Winnebago County had a higher life expectancy than the U.S. as a whole every year until 1998. That year, the U.S. life expectancy reached 76.84 years while the Winnebago County life expectancy was at 76.71.
  • The gap has only continued to grow. In 2014, the life expectancy of someone born in Winnebago County was 77.95 years. In the U.S., it is up to 79.08 years.

So there’s yet another reason we need to Transform Rockford’s economy so that it surpasses the growth rate of the U.S. It will help us live longer.

Click here to see an interactive map so you can check out the data for yourself.

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Winnebago County rankings improve – very slightly

The health of Winnebago County’s residents improved compared with the rest of the state in 2016 – by the slightest of margins.

According to the Robert Wood Foundation’s County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, Winnebago County’s overall health ranked 87 out of the 102 counties in the state in its 2017 rankings. That’s not good, but it is better than the 2016 ranking (based on 2015 figures) of 88.

The rankings were released this week and in some cases, we are making progress:

  • The percentage of adults who smoke was just 17 percent in 2016, down from a high of 25 percent in 2012.
  • The number of teen births out of 1,000 dropped to 40. That’s down from 52 in 2012.
  • Our uninsured percentage in 2016 fell to 11 percent, down from 15 percent in 2014.
  • The county unemployment rate was 7.1 percent in 2016, down from 15.2 percent in 2012 (having a job means better health).
  • The child poverty rate ticked down to 23 percent, down from 28 percent in 2013.

Those are the positives. The negatives?

  • The obesity rate in 2016 ticked up to 34 percent, its highest level yet. It started at 28 percent in 2011.
  • The percentage of people who say they are physically inactive remained at 27 percent in 2016. It hasn’t moved much upward or downward even with increasing awareness paid to the subject.
  • In 2016, 19 percent said they drink excessively. This ties the high since the surveys started in 2011. Still, that’s two percentage points below the state level of 21 percent.
  • The violent crime rate of 832 per 10,000 people in 2016 was the lowest since 2012, but still nearly twice the state average.
  • In 2016, 17 percent still reported severe housing problems. That has ticked upward even in the improving economy.

Overall, a mixed bag and a long ways away from healthy communities. The top ranked county in Illinois was Monroe County, south of St. Louis.

In Monroe County:

  • 13 percent of adults smoke.
  • 6 percent are uninsured.
  • The unemployment rate was 4.4 percent.
  • Only 6 percent of children live in poverty.
  • Only 9 percent reported severe housing problems.
  • Only 42 people out of 10,000 were victims of violent crime.

Those are all good numbers. Monroe’s ranking though shows how deep the obesity epidemic runs. Even in Monroe County, supposedly the healthiest county in Illinois, the obesity rate was 33 percent.

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Winnebago County bucking trend on Social Security

Entitlement reform always is a popular topic in Washington D.C., no more so when a new administration takes over.

Social Security if the biggest entitlement program of all and always central in any of those discussions. Interestingly, according to annual statistics published by the Social Security Administration, overall recipients fell in 2015 for the second straight year.

As of Dec. 1, 2015, there were 8.31 million people receiving Social Security benefits of some kind. That was down from the 8.355 million in 2014 and the 8.363 million in 2013 when recipients peaked.

The decline was due to fewer people drawing disability payments in the improving economy. There were 7.206 million receiving disability benefits in 2013 and that was down to 7.152 million in 2015. The number of people age 65 and older receiving benefits rose to 2.15 million in 2015, an all-time high.

Winnebago County bucked a couple of those trends. Social Security recipients here rose both in 2014 and 2015 to a record 7,283. Those receiving disability benefits continued to grow as well, up to 6,882. Recipients age 65 and above actually declined slightly from 979 to 970. The amount of money coming into the county monthly from Social Security was $4.36 million, up from $2.99 million just 10 years before.

Where can Transform Rockford affect these trends? An area with an increasingly educated and well-trained workforce will attract better businesses, which in turn will attract younger and more educated workers, which would drive down the percentage of our population receiving Social Security benefits.