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Mayor Emanuel says credibility intact after release of school-closing memo

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett with Mayor Rahm Emanuel press conference announcing 'wall-to-wall' International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes Taft High School

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a press conference announcing "wall-to-wall" International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes at Taft High School and Lincoln Park High School. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 22, 2013 6:28AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday brushed aside suggestions that a memo written last fall outlining a strategy for closing more than 100 under-capacity Chicago Public Schools damages his credibility in the highly-charged debate.

“I believe that, over the last decade, there’s been a lot of paperwork. I would expect people to do some analysis. What has been missing in the last decade is engagement and actions,” the mayor said at an unrelated City Hall news conference.

“There has been a movement of fewer students in our public schools.,” Emanuel said. “A lot of people have studied it. A lot of paperwork and analysis has been done. Now, we have something different that we’ve never had in the past. That’s community engagement and the ability and the will now to finally act on something that has been postponed for over a decade.”

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has divorced herself from the September memo prepared by her predecessor that outlined scenarios for closing or gradually shutting down more than 100 schools and braced for the political fallout.

But, it didn’t sit well with African-American aldermen whose wards have lost population and, therefore, stand to lose the greatest number of schools.

They claim it plays into the community’s longstanding suspicion that CPS already has a hit-list of specific schools to be closed and that community hearings are a sham.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), former chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee now serving as the mayor’s floor leader, scoffed at suggestions that the memo is the political equivalent of a smoking gun.

“Do people really expect the city to operate from the seat of their pants? Of course they would plan and think about how you would go about accomplishing this. It doesn’t mean that things are set in stone. It means they’re trying to figure out how to proceed,” O’Connor said.

“If I was an average citizen of Chicago, I would hope to hell that there would be discussion and there would be memos to show my city is thinking about things that are important to me and my children. I don’t know that it hurts his credibility. It just gives people opposed to him an opportunity to try and make hay.”

The school system faces a $1 billion budget shortfall by summer. And officials say some 330 of its 681 schools are under capacity and that it has 100,000 more seats than it has students.

After replacing Jean Claude-Brizard, Byrd-Bennett sought and won a change in state law that will allow her to push back the deadline for announcing a hit list of schools until March 31.

In exchange, she agreed to do it once, then swear off school closings for five years while retaining the right to shake up schools for academic reasons.

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