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Chicago to shutter dozens of schools

By Dana Ford and Katherine Wojtecki, CNN
March 22, 2013 -- Updated 0130 GMT (0930 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Chicago's mayor says the city, its children have "paid the price" for inaction
  • NEW: Teachers union says closures would disproportionately affect students of color
  • Sixty-one buildings, including 53 schools and one program, would close
  • Chicago Public Schools says it faces a $1 billion deficit

Chicago (CNN) -- Chicago school officials said Thursday that they plan to close dozens of schools in a bid to improve education and tackle a $1 billion deficit.

The move would shutter 61 school buildings, including 53 underused schools and one program. The cut represents roughly 10% of all elementary school facilities in Chicago Public Schools, the country's third-largest school district.

"Every child in every neighborhood in Chicago deserves access to a high-quality education that prepares them to succeed in life, but for too long children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed because they are in underutilized, under-resourced schools," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive officer of CPS.

"As a former teacher and a principal, I've lived through school closings, and I know that this will not be easy, but I also know that in the end this will benefit our children. Like school systems across the country where enrollment has dropped, Chicago must make tough choices, and by consolidating these schools, we can focus on safely getting every child into a better performing school close to their home," she said.

The Chicago Teachers Union opposes the closures, which it says would disproportionately affect African-American students. The union also warns the move would expose students to gang violence and turf wars, an apparent reference to neighborhood loyalties.

"This city cannot destroy that many schools at one time, and we contend that no school should be closed in the city of Chicago. These actions will not only put our students' safety and academic careers at risk but also further destabilize our neighborhoods," said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

"We do not have a utilization crisis. What we have is a credibility crisis. CPS continues to peddle half-truths, lies and misinformation in order to justify its campaign to wipe out our schools and carry out this corporate-driven school-reform nonsense," she said.

The union went on strike last year. The city's nearly 30,000 teachers walked out on September 10, objecting to a longer school day, evaluations tied to student performance and job losses from school closings.

Wins, losses and draws in Chicago school strike

With school districts across the country dealing with financial shortfalls and pressures to make reforms, the strike quickly gained national attention. It pitted the teachers union against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who spoke in support of the school closings Thursday.

"This decision has been delayed for a decade, and it's our children and our city that have paid the price for inaction," he said. "Consolidating schools is the best way to make sure all of our city's students get the resources they need to succeed in the classroom."

CPS currently has 403,000 students, with seats for more than 511,000, and close to 140 of its 681 schools are more than half empty, according to the district.

Katherine Wojtecki reported from Chicago. Dana Ford reported and wrote from Atlanta.

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