Activists rally against school closings

November 12, 2012

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(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and some activists are rallying today in protest of the city’s plans to close public schools. Speeches at Cityfront Plaza in Streetville kicked off a march heading along Michigan Avenue to the Hyatt Magnificent Mile.     

Rumors have been flying for weeks that school leaders want to shutter up to 100 schools, but district officials insist that is not the case.

Rally attendees argue that many of the underenrolled schools that might be closed have been underinvested in over the last decade. They also say Chicago Public Schools should not continue opening new charter schools in the face of huge deficits.

“If you really have a problem with too many school buildings, I think you can get a good faith conversation and start by saying you’re going to give up on the plan of open 100 new schools,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “That doesn’t make any sense, to be closing schools at the same time you’re building new ones.”

In a grant application sent to the Gates Foundation last spring, CPS outlined plans to open 100 new schools in the next five years, about 60 of them privately run charters.

A spokeswoman says that number is not set in stone and was only a projection.

The grant proposal mirrored former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, which opened 100 new schools in five years. A WBEZ analysis of Renaissance 2010 schools performance showed mixed results.

For almost a decade, CPS has been closing schools and opening new ones based on performance. This year, school officials plan to use only enrollment in deciding which schools to shut down. By doing so, they say they can save between $500,000 and $800,000 per building.

But others say the savings won’t make much of a dent in the district’s looming deficit. Next year, CPS anticipates a $1 billion shortfall, mostly due to an increase in pension costs.

School leaders said they want to delay any closings until the end of March in order to get feedback from communities.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel echoed that pledge Monday.

“(Delaying school closings) was not intended to stop protests, I understand people will be upset, but we’re going to have to deal now with what’s been postponed,” Emanuel said. “But we have a different process that actually engages the community in a conversation rather than push them aside to it.”

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett appointed a new “independent commission” to oversee school closings and help engage the community. The commission has not yet met publicly and is not subject to the Open Meetings Act, which requires they meet in public any time more than two members want to get together.