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March 22, 2013

Chicago to close 54 schools due to deficit

CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools officials said Thursday they plan to close 54 schools in an effort to address a $1 billion budget shortfall and improve a struggling educational system.

District CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel say the closures are necessary because too many CPS buildings are half-empty. The nation’s third-largest district, CPS has about 403,000 students but has seats for more than 500,000, officials say. But opponents say the closures will disproportionately affect minority children and endanger students who may have to cross gang boundaries to attend school.

The plan will affect about 30,000 students, CPS officials said. They say money being spent to keep underutilized schools open could be better used to educate students elsewhere.

“Every child in every neighborhood in Chicago deserves access to a high-quality education that prepares them to succeed in life, but for too long children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed because they are in underutilized, under-resourced schools,” Byrd-Bennett said. “As a former teacher and a principal, I’ve lived through school closings and I know that this will not be easy, but I also know that in the end this will benefit our children.”

Critics say the closings are unnecessary and will devastate communities.

Sandra Leon said she got a tearful call from her grandchildren’s kindergarten teacher saying their school was on the list to be closed. Her two grown children also attended the school, and Leon couldn’t suppress tears as she waited outside the building for her grandchildren.

Chicago is among several major U.S. cities — including Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit — to use mass school closures to reduce costs and offset declining enrollment. Detroit has closed more than 130 schools since 2005.

The issue has again pitted Emanuel against the Chicago Teachers Union, whose 26,000 members went on strike early in the school year, idling students for seven days. It has also put Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett at odds with parents, civic leaders and lawmakers, who have blasted the pair during highly charged community meetings throughout the city and at a legislative hearing earlier this week.

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