PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday May 22nd, 2013, 7:24pm

Education Activists Decry CPS Closings At Tense Board Of Ed Meeting (VIDEO)

The Chicago Board of Education has voted to close 49 elementary schools and one high school in order to address the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) reported underutilization crisis. Progress Illinois was there for the tense and emotional meeting.

The Chicago Board of Education has voted to close 49 elementary schools and one high school in order to address the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) reported underutilization crisis.

The board's vote makes Chicago the first city in the nation to approve this many school closings at one time.

Of the 54 total schools originally slated to close, four have been spared, as recommended by CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. 

The four schools that will not close include, Leif Ericson Elementary Scholastic Academy, Marcus Moziah Garvey Elementary, Mahalia Jackson Elementary and George Manierre Elementary.

Just one of the six schools slated for a turnaround, Clara Barton Elementary, will be saved.

The schools that will turnaround include William W Carter ElementaryDewey Elementary Academy of Fine Arts, and Isabelle C O'Keeffe Elementary schools on the South Side and Thomas Chalmers Specialty Elementary and Leslie Lewis Elementary on the West Side.

Board members listened to more than two hours of impassioned speeches from aldermen and community members at Wednesday's meeting. They also saw multiple acts of public dissent within the board's chamber.

A handful of protestors, mostly with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), gathered at the podium at the start of the public comment session.

Shannon Bennett (shown above) with KOCO was not on the roster to speak, but he approached the microphone. He said the school board’s vote is not legitimate, because Chicago residents do not elect the members.

His microphone got cut off, and he began to shout his concerns at the board members before being physically removed by security. Audience members cheered and clapped for him, while others linked arms and began signing, “We shall not be moved.”

“We do understand that these emotions and concerns are real, and we have taken them into consideration,” said Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale before the vote. “But we have also heard, and I might say repeatedly, that the status quo is unacceptable, an assessment we also agree with.”

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told the board members she hoped they could live with their decision.

“I personally feel you are on the wrong side of history, and history will judge you,” Lewis warned.

Lewis called on CPS officials to start every school on a level academic playing field once the new academic year begins.

"I don't want to hear the next time I come in here, 'This school's been on probation for 17 years. Yadda, yadda, yadda,'" Lewis said. "You all keep moving the bar ... If this is your master plan, let's not carry over any of the ugliness. Let's move forward."

Byrd-Bennett said the district’s underutilization crisis is real.

“We must address the crisis, because it is a critical component of a larger comprehensive academic vision for the district,” she said before the vote.

A few activists interrupted Byrd-Bennett about five minutes into her testimony.

“Children will die, because CPS lies!” shouted Susan Hurley, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, along with other demonstrators.

Another audience member later cut Byrd-Bennett off and shouted from the back of the room, “How do you sleep at night?”

Erica Clark with Parents 4 Teachers told board members she was opposed to all the proposed actions because, “As a parent, as a mother, every Chicago public school is my school."

Clark proceeded to read off the schools slated to close in alphabetical order, saying they were her schools too.

She made it to Nathaniel Pope Elementary School before her allotted time to speak was done.  She sat down near the podium and continued reading off the list. Others clapped and began chanting, “Every school is my school” as security walked Clark out of the room.

Earlier this morning, activists also caused a ruckus when they entered the CPS lobby to demonstrate. Police and CPS security made the demonstrators leave, and CPS officials stopped letting people into the building temporarily.

Here’s a look at the protestors taking over the lobby:

Board member Mahalia Hines responded to the overwhelming concerns about student safety raised at today’s meeting. 

“In many cases we have not stepped up like we should, and I’m talking about us as African Americans,” Hines said. “We talk about safety, I don’t care how many police we bring and what this board does, the kids are unsafe ... if it does not start in the home. These are somebody’s children.”

That comment did not sit well with Wendy Katten of Raise Your Hand For Illinois Public Education.

“She just said black parents don’t know what they’re doing, and we are going to force children in a building together because nothing else works,” Katten said in remarks after the meeting. “We have black people who just said black parents don’t know how to parent, that’s what just happened. And let’s force multi-generational violence because the parents don’t know what they’re doing ... Put them in the building and let’s hope they get along.”

CPS and the Chicago Police Department will work in partnership with each school community, in addition to other city agencies, in order to expand the district's Safe Passage program to ensures safe and secure routes to and from school, district officials said. The Safe Passage program will also work to ensure safe learning environments inside the classroom, according to CPS.

Also, in the coming weeks CPS has said it will work to finalize transition plans and Safe Passage routes. CPS will also identify fall enrollment at each welcoming school. 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel released the following statement after the vote:

I want to thank CEO Byrd-Bennett, the Board, the Commission and the tens of thousands of community members who have played an invaluable role in helping to ensure every child in this city has access to an education that matches their full potential. I know this is incredibly difficult, but I firmly believe the most important thing we can do as a city is provide the next generation with a brighter future.  More hard work lies ahead, but I am confident that together with teachers and principals, engaged parents and community support, our children will succeed.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) was critical of CPS’ cost-savings projections for closing the schools.

Instead of shutting down neighborhood schools, he suggested redirecting tax increment financing, or TIF, money back to the district in order to address its reported $1 billion budget deficit.

Fioretti also called for a moratorium on school closings. More than 50 activists went to Springfield today to urge lawmakers to pass companion legislation that would put a temporary moratorium on the closings. The bills have been stalled in the state legislature.

The 2nd ward alderman also questioned the authenticity of CPS’ recent public meetings and hearings on the school action plan.

“I’m worried that all those hearings were a charade,” Fioretti said, which caused the audience to clap and cheer.

Board member Henry Bienen said people who say no funds will be saved by closing underutilized schools “are simply wrong.”

“You just don’t know any economics,” Bienen said.

Rousemary Vega, a parent at Jean D. Lafayette Elementary School, which the board voted to close, stood at the podium and sent Byrd-Bennett a direct message.

“When you say you’re a grandmother, we think (of) you as a loving person. Yet your hatred actions speak louder than words,” Vega said. “So Miss Barbara Byrd-Bennett, when you close these schools and hear about these children being beat up, bullied, dropped out of school or even murdered, think about it.”

The children who will be impacted by school closings have grandmothers “whose hearts hurt, because our children have no one to defend them,” Vega added.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) called on CPS to invest in the future of young people who live in the Bronzeville neighborhood, which is in her ward. She said her community cannot endure any more school actions.

“We need time to recover,” Dowell told the board. “We need time for our students to really adjust to this quote-unquote right-sizing of the CPS school system. We have had enough.”

CTU Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle says there is simply not enough transition time for students and teachers affected by the record-breaking number of school actions approved today.

"Schools don’t have their budgets yet," she said. "Teachers don’t know if or where they’ll be working next year. We don’t know where students will end up."

Special education students in particular will not have enough time to plan for an adequate transition, she said.

Here's more from Mayle:

And the fight is not over, she added.

Tomorrow more than 200 people are expected to take part in a CTU political education workshop, conducted by the Cook County Clerk’s office, that teaches people how to become a deputy registrar. The workshop is part of the CTU's overall political campaign to get new voters registered in the city in order to put the "public back in public education," Lewis said in a statement. 

The CTU, along with a coalition of organizations, have also pledged to raise money to assist candidates interested in running for political office, particularly for the office of Chicago mayor.

Also, two lawsuits filed on behalf of CPS parents against the school closings are still in play, Mayle said. A court date on the lawsuits is scheduled for Thursday, and an injunction may be heard next week, she said.

“We’re going to keep on fighting,” she said. “After this meeting, we’re not going to give up hope. We’re going to regroup. We’re going to meet; we’re going to come up with plans. We’re going to keep fighting.”

Images of Bennett, Lewis and Byrd-Bennett: AP, All others: Progress Illinois

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