Despite Protests, Chicago to Close 49 Schools

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CHICAGO -- After an emotional public schools meeting, officials here in the third-largest district in the country voted Wednesday to close 49 public schools that they said were not being fully used.

The decision, passed unanimously by the Chicago Board of Education, came after weeks of contentious public hearings that brought more than 34,000 people out to oppose the school consolidation plan at dozens of hearings across the city.

The move, which singled out schools that district officials said were half empty after years of population loss -- but that opponents argued unfairly singled out low-income minority communities -- makes up the largest group of city schools to be closed at once in recent memory.

"The greatest challenge facing our school system right now is that tens of thousands of children every year are trapped in underutilized schools and under-resourced schools," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, who had to pause her remarks more than once when protesters began shouting.

She later added, "We cannot maintain a system that cannot be sustained and does not benefit the children."

Chicago now has 145,000 fewer school-age children than it had more than a decade ago, according to district data, and the district had already closed about 100 schools since 2001.

In March, the Chicago Public Schools identified 53 more elementary schools that it planned to shutter, expecting to save about $500 million over 10 years in part to reduce a $1 billion deficit.

The plan drew outrage from many parents in Chicago's South Side and West Side areas. At protests across the city, opponents raised safety concerns about children having to walk further distances, possibly crossing gang lines, to their new schools.

At the meeting on Wednesday, Ms. Byrd-Bennett removed four schools from her original recommended closing list, plus a fifth school she suggested should not be closed until next year. She said the district and the Police Department were working together to develop a safety plan for consolidating schools.

Tensions ran high during more than two hours of public comment, as teachers and parent made their final pleas to the board, at times shouting and weeping into a microphone at the front of the room.

More than once, speakers were escorted from the room by security guards after refusing to give up the podium after their allotted two-minute time periods. One parent sat down on the floor after speaking and chanting, "Every school is my school" until she was carried out.

"These parents and these teachers are not dollar signs," said Wanda Wilburn, a parent speaking out against all the school closings. "They are people with feelings and lives."

Begging officials to keep her child's South Side school from getting boarded up, Sharon Taylor, a parent at Granville T. Woods Academy, added, "We have what you say my baby needs."

In the end, only the four schools were spared, as Ms. Byrd-Bennett requested.

But opponents say they are not done fighting. Last week, parents filed two lawsuits in federal court claiming that the closings would violate the Americans With Disabilities Act by uprooting and disrupting special education students. One of those lawsuits also contends that the consolidation plan would disproportionately affect minority communities, violating Illinois civil rights law.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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