Quick Hit Ashlee Rezin Thursday March 21st, 2013, 8:40pm

Chicago Teachers Union, Advocates Speak Out Against School Closures (VIDEO)

Standing outside one of the schools slated for closure, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis had heated words for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Board of Education today.

Today, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) released a list of 61 school buildings that will be closed. Six of those schools will be turned around while the other 54 will be shuttered outright. Eleven schools will be consolidated.

Calling the school actions a “travesty” and an “abomination,” Lewis called Mayor Rahm Emanuel “cowardly” and said he “should be ashamed of himself.”

She called for an elected school board and a moratorium on school closings. Earlier this week, legslation calling for a moratorium on school closings in Chicago got watered down, essentially kicking the effort down the road.

“This policy is racist, it’s classist, and we have to continue to say, that our mayor who is away on a ski trip, drops this information right before spring break,” she said. “How are our children going to spend next week? What is their spring break going to look like?”

Lewis’ remarks came from the front of Mahaila Jackson Elementary School in the South Side neighborhood of Auburn-Gresham; which is scheduled for closure, with the students headed to Fort Dearborn school.

Here’s more from Lewis late this afternoon:

Facing a $1 billion deficit, CPS officials are touting this wave of school actions as an attempt to address an "underutilization" problem in the district. The school system has classroom space for more than 500,000 students, but just over 400,000 students are enrolled, according to CPS.

Receiving schools have been promised enrichments as a result of the spike in student population. CPS has made promises of upgrades, such as air conditioning, science labs and libraries.

But according to one teacher, Jackson does not have a utilization problem, and already has a library, air conditioning, heat, a science lab and two technology labs.

“Closing schools is not the answer,” said Tamara Faggins, a second grade teacher at Jackson.

Having taught at the school for four years, Faggins cried as she spoke of her uncertainty for the future of her school.

“This is an unsafe neighborhood, but this is a safe school,” she said. “Why would they make the students travel when they have a school right here that already offers so much.”

As part of a security plan unveiled by CPS last week, students would not be forced to walk more than four-fifths of a mile to get to their new schools as a result of the closures.

Expanded to every school receiving new students, the “Safe Passage” plan will charge police and community groups with securing safe routes for student travel. Also, when necessary, receiving schools may be provided with additional surveillance cameras, alarm systems and entry screening equipment, according to CPS.

Nonetheless, many elected officials are speaking out against the school actions with utter disdain.

Earlier today, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she found it to be "very disturbing" that a large number of schools were set to be closed.

"I don't know the finances of the Board of Education, but I think it’s very tough to argue that kids will be better educated outside their community; especially since – for some of them – they’ve had a succession of closings,” Preckwinkle told WBBM Newsradio.

The Chicago City Council's Progressive Reform Coalition released the following statement voicing strong concerns about the plan to shutter so many schools shortly before the final school action list was released:

In going ahead with this plan, the Chicago Public Schools administration and the Board of Education are violating the Illinois General Assembly’s requirement that it disclose its ten-year master facilities plan first. Moreover, we are concerned that the plan disproportionately targets schools serving African-American and Latino children. As a result, this massive closure would leave entire neighborhoods as virtual "school deserts," disrupting the lives of children and families and depressing property values.

The impact of these closings is overwhelmingly negative and socially costly: It will have a negative impact on children who are forced to travel long distances to the receiving school, or to be bussed out of their communities. Children will have to travel through unfamiliar and possibly dangerous neighborhoods beset with gang activity. Schools which receive children will be at risk of overcrowding, thus negatively affecting both the new arrivals and the children already in the receiving schools.

The CEO has assured that all children from closed schools will be assigned to a school which are performing better academically than the closed school. The Police Superintendent has assured that each child from closed schools will be afforded safe passage to and from school. The people of Chicago should hear how these assurances will come to bear before any changes are made. Such assurances have been hollow in the past, and there is no evidence they will be truer today.

The public deserves answers to these important questions: How much will it cost to move all these students and to ensure their safety and security? How will the new expenses be paid for? Until this and many other questions are explored, examined and presented for public review, we stand with our teachers, parents and other community stakeholders in calling call for an immediate moratorium on school closings.

Attributing Chicago’s violence to the “lack of sensitivity” from the mayor and his administration, Rev. Robert Jones of Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church spoke at today’s press conference on the issue.

“If any child’s life is lost, the blood of that child is on the hands of Mayor Rahm Emanuel,” he said.

Here’s more from other press conference attendees:

Calling Emanuel the “murder mayor” Lewis said the CTU intends to fight the impending school actions.

With a march and rally scheduled for March 27, Lewis said the CTU would be “organizing all of our communities against these unjust and outrageous closings.”

“What’s right for children is not asking them to put their lives on the line because we have to close some schools,” she said. “We need to have an honest conversation about how to really make our streets safe.”

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