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Chicago school board votes to close 49 elementary schools

Published: Thursday, May 23, 2013 10:37 a.m. CST

(MCT) CHICAGO — Months of argument and anguish over Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push for sweeping school closures came to a climax Wednesday as his hand-picked Board of Education voted to shut 49 elementary schools and transfer thousands of children to new classroom settings.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett withdrew her recommendation to close another four schools at the last minute as it became clear some board members would fight to save them.

But the board gave a ringing endorsement to Emanuel’s vision for a downsized school system, which he argues will help combat a massive budget deficit and allow the district to distribute scarce resources more efficiently.

Critics were unconvinced, and many forcefully expressed objections during and after Wednesday’s board meeting. Alderman Ameya Pawar, one of several City Council members who spoke on behalf of schools in their wards, argued that schools serve as the glue of many neighborhoods.

“Closing a school is akin to closing a community,” Pawar said.

But Byrd-Bennett, in urging a vote for the administration’s proposal, said that doing nothing to address underused and poorly performing schools was harmful to children.

“We can no longer embrace the status quo because the status quo is not working for all Chicago school children,” Byrd-Bennett said. “It is imperative that you take the difficult decision but essential steps.”

The board voted 6-0 to back Emanuel on closing 48 elementary schools and one high school program. The vote to close Von Humboldt Elementary was broken out, and passed 4-2.

The board’s solid support for the long controversial slate of closings came as little surprise to his critics, chief among them the Chicago Teachers Union, which last week filed two federal lawsuits seeking to block the district from following through on its plan.

CTU President Karen Lewis said the union was still hoping courts would intervene to keep schools open but vowed to leverage voter anger over closures to block the re-election of Emanuel, who has said he was prepared to take a political hit for the closings.

“Well, he will,” Lewis declared. “I’m glad he’s prepared.”

Emanuel held no public events Wednesday, but his office released a statement after the vote in which he acknowledged closures were “incredibly difficult” but added, “I firmly believe the most important thing we can do as a city is provide the next generation with a brighter future.”

The decision to shut so many schools in Chicago, while unprecedented in number for a major urban center, did not occur in a vacuum. School systems in many large U.S. cities, facing similar financial and demographic challenges, have also been closing schools.

In March, officials in Philadelphia voted to close 23 public schools, a list significantly pared from a much higher proposal in the face of the same fierce resistance from parents, students and teachers that has roiled communities for months in Chicago. The Philadelphia cutbacks represented one in every 10 schools there, an even larger share than has now been marked for termination in Chicago.

School reform efforts have been launched with fits and starts for years in Chicago, perhaps most notably nearly two decades ago when then Mayor Richard Daley got the Illinois Legislature to cede him broad new power to revamp city schools. Daley saw a rejuvenated school system as key to his efforts to maintain a thriving middle class in the city.

Yet, economic and racial diversity have visibly eluded city schools, with 87 percent of the district’s 403,000 students coming from low-income families and more than 91 percent from minority households, records show.

The serious under-enrollment problem the administration cites as a reason for closures is linked in large measure to an exodus from the city in recent years of middle class African-American families.

That demographic reality was underscored by board member Mahalia Hines in casting her vote. She likened the dilemma facing city schools to a nervous dental patient deciding whether to put off necessary oral surgery.

“The decay is too much and that’s why so many middle class African-Americans have left the city,” she said, linking depopulation among blacks directly to problems of the schools.

A recent Tribune/WGN-TV poll found wide opposition to the closures among Chicago voters, in particular among blacks and Hispanics.

The score card from the board’s action Wednesday breaks down this way:

— 47 elementary schools are to close after the current term and two others after next school year.

— Also to close after this year is a high school program now attached to Mason elementary school in the North Lawndale neighborhood.

— Four elementary schools that had been targeted for closing — Garvey and Mahalia Jackson on the South Side, Ericson on the West Side and Manierre on the Near North Side — gained last minute reprieves.

Retired state and federal judges hired as hearing officers to weigh public concerns about the closings had urged against shutting down Manierre and Jackson. The hearing officers, citing concerns ranging from student safety to the harm that could result for special needs students, also recommended against closing 11 other schools but the board voted for shutting down all of those schools.

CPS sources said board members wavered on the fate of Garvey, Jackson, Ericson and Manierre in the days leading up to the vote, with the mayor’s office, school officials and board members engaging in last minute horse-trading on what to close and what to save.

By Tuesday, the sources said, Emanuel aides and schools officials were deep into strategy talks on whether to pre-empt the board’s opposition to closing the four schools by having Byrd-Bennett withdraw her recommendation to shutter those schools. In the end, that is what took place.

“I’m sure it came about as a result of different board members’ opinions,” said board member Carlos Azcoitia.

While Emanuel has publicly distanced himself from closing decisions, aldermen and others lobbied him personally.

Alderman Walter Burnett said he was able to make an impression on Emanuel about the importance of keeping Manierre open. Shifting from an argument about security and gang issues, Burnett said he impressed upon Emanuel how having Manierre open would be a boon to efforts to attract more middle-class families to the neighborhood once best known for the Cabrini Green public housing complex.

“He literally told me ‘I’m not going to make this decision based on a family feud.’ So at that point, I realized I had to try a different argument,” Burnett said. “So after that, I tried not to focus on the crime thing. I tried to focus on redevelopment.”

In the end, Manierre was spared, but Burnett didn’t have luck convincing CPS to pull other schools in his ward off the closing list.

In her statement to the board Wednesday, which were interrupted several times by protesters, Byrd-Bennett stressed the vote was just another step in a process that began seven months ago amid a public promise she made to rebuild trust in a school system with a deep credibility problem.

Critics have charged that closures only increased their wariness of CPS, pointing to what they contend were a series of misrepresentations aimed at building the administration’s case to shut schools. Topping the list was a frequent Emanuel talking point about how sagging enrollment translated into 100,000 empty desks in city schools.

That calculation relies on the assumption that the ideal size of every homeroom in every school should be 30 students, a number far greater than is reality for the average class size in Chicago or almost anywhere else in Illinois.

Another gripe was that the district promised to send all students at closing schools to academically better ones, yet in three dozen cases the differences in performance between schools being closed and those designated as receiving are negligible.

Tim Knowles, a University of Chicago education expert who has advised Emanuel on school matters, said the success or failure of Emanuel’s controversial push to close so many schools simultaneously will rest on his pledge to keep children safe and improve their academic results.

“The true test will be whether there will be success of children over time and the ability of the district to make good on safe passage,” Knowles said.

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Tribune reporters Ellen Jean Hirst, Naomi Nix, Bill Ruthhart, John Byrne, David Heinzmann and Kim Geiger contributed.

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©2013 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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