* Union calls proposal "sleight of hand"
* Feelings still raw after teachers strike in September
By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO, Nov 26 Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said
on Monday he wants a five-year moratorium on closing public
schools after anticipated cuts in 2013, but the teachers union
called his gesture a "sleight of hand."
The third-largest school district in the United States,
which was hit with a strike by public school teachers in
September, was already facing a financial crisis that was made
worse by granting pay rises to teachers.
The school district forecasts a $1 billion deficit next year
and is widely expected to try to balance its budget in part by
closing public schools.
Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has fallen nearly 20
percent in the last decade, mainly because of population
declines in poor neighborhoods. The district said it can
accommodate 500,000 students, but only about 400,000 are
Some 140 schools are half-empty, according to the district.
The union said 86 Chicago public schools have closed in the past
decade, but the district could not confirm that number.
Urban school districts around the country are grappling with
the issue declining enrollment, including in Philadelphia,
Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Washington,
D.C., according to a study last year on school closings by the
Pew Charitable Trust.
The first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years drew national
attention to the city's dispute over education reforms such as
teacher evaluations. The teachers were given a pay rise as part
of the strike settlement.
Chicago teachers and some parents have complained that the
school district has ignored their concerns.
The offer of a five-year moratorium was seen as an attempt
by Emanuel, who has championed education reform and has
repeatedly clashed with the teachers union, to provide some
stability to Chicago schools after closings in the coming year.
"Mayor Emanuel recognizes that for many years CPS (Chicago
Public Schools) has made too many piecemeal decisions around
school actions, which has caused unnecessary disruptions to
students, parents and schools across the city," said Barbara
Byrd-Bennett, who was appointed by Emanuel after the strike
ended to head the district.
Byrd-Bennett spoke to a business group on Monday at the City
Club of Chicago.
The district faces a Dec. 1 deadline to issue a proposed
list of schools to be closed, although Byrd-Bennett has asked
the Illinois legislature for a four-month delay until March 31.
The Chicago Tribune has reported that school district
officials are considering closing up to 120 schools next year,
or about 17 percent of the total. The district has established a
commission to study the issue.
Byrd-Bennett told reporters on Monday that the district does
not have a number under consideration.
At the heart of the dispute over school closings is the
expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded, but
mostly non unionized. The number of charter schools has risen
even as neighborhood public schools are closed.
"Today's announcement is nothing more than a sleight of
hand," the Chicago Teachers Union said in a statement. "How can
the district cry 'under-utilization' as a justification for
school closings while it simultaneously approves the opening of
new charter campuses?"
The teachers union has complained that charter schools
undermine public education and force more community schools to
close. The academic performance record of charter schools
compared with community schools is mixed, according to national
Chicago now has 103 charter or "contract" schools, some run
by philanthropists, which account for 12 percent of students.
There are plans by supporters for 60 more charter schools over
the next five years, according to the district and the union.
The union said 88 percent of students affected by Chicago
school closings or other actions in the past decade were
African-American and most closed schools have been in poor