Chicago Teachers, Students Protest Move to Close Schools

Several hundred Chicago teachers, parents and students blocked key downtown streets to protest a cost-cutting decision to close 54 public schools.

Organizers including the Chicago Teachers Union made good on their pledge to put their “bodies on the line” yesterday during a march to City Hall, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed closing the schools to help erase a $1 billion deficit.

“It’s a death sentence for our kids to walk a mile to school in that environment” of gangs and violence, said Rousemary Vega, 33, at the rally. She has three children, ages 11, 6 and 4, at Lafayette Elementary School on the West Side.

Emanuel, 53, and aides say too many buildings are underused and stretch the district’s ability to provide programs and equipment. His proposal would shut 53 elementary schools and one high school, fewer than half the 129 on a preliminary target list. Union leaders and parents say the plan endangers children.

“These actions unnecessarily expose our students to gang violence, turf wars and peer-to-peer conflict,” Karen Lewis, president of the union, the largest teachers local in Illinois, said in a March 21 statement. “This city cannot destroy that many schools at one time; and we contend that no school should be closed.”

LaSalle Street in the heart of the city’s financial district was among the thoroughfares tied up by marchers who sat down in the road at the height of yesterday’s evening commute to demonstrate their opposition to the closures. Police dispersed some who blocked traffic.

No Arrests

Adam Collins, a police spokesman, said 127 protesters who wouldn’t get out of the street were given citations on the spot.

“There were no physical arrests,” Collins said.

Demonstrators gathered at Daley Plaza, opposite City Hall, to protest the closings.

“A lot of people in the city need to be as angry as the teachers because the actions they’re taking are putting children at risk -- it’s criminal,” said Willie Williamson, 65, a science teacher at the Herbert school on the West Side who said he’ll have to reinterview for his job or leave when Herbert merges with a neighboring school.

Emanuel, a Democrat, said in a March 22 statement that the city delayed school closings for a decade “and it’s our children and our city that have paid the price of inaction.”

Closings in the system, the nation’s third-largest with 403,000 students and 681 schools, would affect 10 percent of elementary schools and about 30,000 students, according to district statements. The move would save an estimated $990 million over 10 years, allowing the district to better equip remaining schools with basics such as libraries and air conditioning, according to administrators.

Other cities have made similar moves. Philadelphia officials facing a $1.35 billion spending gap over five years voted this month to shut 9 percent of its public schools. Detroit also has closed buildings as the population declined.

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