CHICAGO – Hundreds of teachers, parents and other opponents marched through downtown Wednesday to protest a plan to close 54 Chicago Public Schools as Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he's done negotiating and is moving on to the "implementation" phase.
Emanuel and schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett say the nation's third-largest district must close dozens of schools because CPS faces a $1 billion budget shortfall and has too many schools that are half-empty and failing academically.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson rallied with protesters who carried signs and chanted, "Whose schools? Our schools."
Lewis called the closings "injustices" and said closing the schools isn't a done deal. Lawsuits are planned, she said.
"There are many ways that you can show that this is not over," she told the protesters, whose march filled the street and stretched a full city block. "On the first day of school you show up at your real school. Don't let these people take your school."
Retired teacher Gloria Warner, 62, has two grandchildren who attend Chicago Public Schools. She sat in the street, arm-in-arm with other protesters.
"We need the mayor and CPS to invest in our schools, not take them away," she said. "We need our schools for the safety of our children."
CPS and the mayor say the closings will save the district $560 million over 10 years in capital costs and an additional $43 million per year in operating costs. About 30,000 students – almost all of them in Kindergarten to eighth grade – would be affected.
A group of Chicago ministers also went to City Hall on Wednesday to deliver a letter asking Emanuel to halt the plan.
At a press conference on an unrelated topic Wednesday, the mayor said he and Byrd-Bennett already are working out how to carry through on a pledge that every child who is moved ends up at a higher quality school. He said the closings already have been delayed too long.
"Keeping open a school that is falling short year-in and year-out means we haven't done what we are responsible for; not what our parents did for us and what we owe every child in the city of Chicago," Emanuel said.
Critics say the closings disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods and will uproot kids who need a stable and familiar environment in which to learn. They also worry that students will have to cross gang lines to get to a new school, and that the vacated buildings will be blight on already struggling communities.
They will get another chance to argue their case at a series of public meetings that will be scheduled in coming weeks, though the Chicago Board of Education – whose members are all appointed by Emanuel – is expected to approve the plan in late May.
The closings would take effect beginning with the start of the 2013-2014 school year.