ROCKFORD — City Council on Monday unanimously agreed to invest $1.5 million annually in scholarships to Northern Illinois University in what is being billed as a “game changing” new program for the city.
The program to fund scholarships for Rockford Public Schools students proposed by Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara is viewed as an investment in the economic development and future workforce of Rockford. It is hoped that the program will make Rockford Public Schools attendance more attractive and boost the city economically. Funding would come from a portion of expected casino proceeds, covering tuition and fees through the nonprofit Rockford Promise organization.
“I know it’s not in our immediate purview, education,” McNamara said. “But when you look at those things we do focus on — look at neighborhoods, look at economic development, look at public safety — everything is tied to education in the community. Tonight we really told all the young people that we believe in them and that we care for them. Tonight we dreamt a really big dream, and hopefully with that big dream our young people will be able to do the same.”
Alderman Joseph Chiarelli, R-14, who this month was elected the next Winnebago County Board chairman, said he was among a group of aldermen who wanted to see private school students also be eligible for the scholarships. But he said he was proud that his vote to support the program would be among his final acts as a city alderman.
“I’m so happy this is finally taking a major step forward,” Chiarelli said. “I know it’s not perfect, but you will be working to open it up to include all students in Rockford.”
City Council voted 14-0 to approve the program.
Under terms of a 17-year intergovernmental agreement, scholarships would be open to Rockford Public Schools students who graduate with at least a 3.0 GPA.
It’s an exclusive agreement: NIU would not be permitted to enter into similar agreements with any other area agencies or governing bodies — including private schools or other municipalities in Winnebago County.
However, with private school proponents questioning why their Rockford-based private school students are being left out, the city added a clause to the agreement that reserved the right “to work with public and private stakeholders to continue to expand the students eligible for the Rockford Promise NIU Scholarship.”
Some aldermen who were concerned that scholarships would not be available for private school students, were convinced to support it by the additional language.
Alderman Kevin Frost, R-4, was among those concerned, but said he would support it because it is a good program. Frost said he would continue to push to expand the program to include Rockford’s private school students.
“The most important thing is to focus on the students, and not the schools they come from,” Frost said.
Backed by Rockford business and civic leaders, Rockford Chamber of Commerce President Einar Forsman, Rockford Area Realtors CEO Conor Brown and Transform Rockford Executive Director David Sidney have praised the program.
They said it could create new economic opportunities in the region, improve the quality and quantity of the region’s workforce, and make Rockford more attractive to new residents and industries, while raising property values and reducing the tax burden on residents.
Jeff Kolkey: email@example.com; @jeffkolkey
Rockford Promise NIU Schola… by Jeff Kolkey