Emanuel: CPS school closures 'not taken lightly,' but must be done

March 23, 2013

(AP file photo/M. Spencer Green)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Saturday the decision to launch the largest single round of school closures in American history was “not taken lightly” but had to be done, and he dismissed claims the closures are racially motivated as “schoolyard taunts.”

Emanuel made his first public comments about the city’s school closure plan Saturday afternoon. Chicago Public Schools officially released a list of 54 schools slated for closure on Thursday, when the mayor was out of town on a family ski trip.

In his absence, news of CPS’ plan to shutter a record number of public schools by next year has drawn threats of civil unrest from the Chicago Teachers Union and outcry from many parents concerned about their kids having to cross busy streets or navigate new gang territories to get to class.

“This is very difficult, a lot of anguish, and I understand that and I appreciate it,” Emanuel said. “But the anguish and the pain that comes … from making the change is less, or minimal, in my view, or pales compared to the anguish that comes by trapping children in schools that are not succeeding.”

All told, 128 Chicago Public Schools face complete closure or other actions, including consolidation and “turnaround,” when low-performing schools have their entire staffs fired and new ones brought in. That’s four times the number of school shakeups Chicago has ever tried to undertake in a single school year, and the actions disproportionately affect black students.

According to a WBEZ analysis, 87 percent of schools that are being closed or having their buildings vacated are majority African-American. In total, 80 percent of kids affected by closures and other shakeups are black. About 42 percent of CPS students are African-American.

On Saturday Emanuel brushed off accusations from the head of the Chicago Teachers Union that the closure policy is racist.

“I’m not interested in throwing terms around, or schoolyard taunts,” he said. “I’m interested in making sure that the schools are achieving what they’re set up to do: a high-quality education.”

The district has said the shakeups will save about $43 million a year, plus another $560 million in capital costs over the next decade that it won’t have to spend fixing dilapidated buildings. But in tandem with the projected savings, district officials are also planning to spend $233 million next year on new air conditioners, iPads, books and libraries for schools that will take in the tens of thousands of displaced students.

But the closure plan is primarily aimed at getting kids out of schools marked as low-performing or underutilized, not about saving money, Emanuel said.

“[We] did not look at this decision as numbers on a spreadsheet,” he said. “We looked at it, and viewed it [as], ‘What do we need to do to make sure that every child has a high-quality education in the city of Chicago?’”

The mayor also defended his decision to be on vacation when the controversial school closings were first announced.

“I had a family trip planned. Took it. You are not far, ever, from your office, and I was on the phone and emailing with my office regularly,” he said, adding he talked frequently with CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and other staffers.

Chicago Public Schools is planning to hold more than 150 public community meetings before the school board takes a final vote on its shakeup plan, which could occur at its May 22 meeting.