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Analysis: Emanuel could take political beating if CPS doesn’t deliver

Parents rally against school closings Dumas elementary 6600 S. Ellis Friday March 22 2013.  |  John H. White~Sun-Times

Parents rally against school closings at Dumas elementary, 6600 S. Ellis, Friday, March 22, 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 24, 2013 6:12AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel took a media beating for dropping the school closing bombshell while on a spring break ski trip to Utah with his wife and kids.

Whether the mayor takes a political beating — with black voters whose kids will bear the brunt of the closings and their aldermen — will depend on the Chicago Public School system’s ability to safeguard 30,000 impacted students and follow through on promises to improve their new schools.

“Short term, it could be rocky for a while. But if they handle the transfers correctly and put these children in schools that perform better, over time people will say they did the right thing. They have to deliver,” said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, whose ward has one school closing.

O’Connor noted that the new ward map approved by the City Council last year includes 18 black wards, a loss of only one, “essentially ignoring” the fact that Chicago’s black population declined by 181,453 over the last decade.

“That shows we try to keep faith with all of Chicago. But when you’re talking about numbers of pupils in a building, there’s no theory that makes up for the money you’re spending on empty desks. If you make the fiscally responsible decision, you have to make it where the children aren’t living anymore,” O’Connor said.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a former teacher who has criticized Emanuel on education and crime issues, said she understands CPS officials “felt they needed to make this choice.” But she argued that closing so many schools in one fell swoop will be a “Herculean” undertaking.

“We’re talking 30,000 students who will be affected, not to mention their families and the teachers, principals and other school staff. There must be concrete plans that map out how students will get to and from school safely, especially as they navigate unfamiliar territory. Parents need to feel like their voices are being heard as well,” Preckwinkle said.

“I’m a teacher by profession, so nothing I say on the topic of schools is neutral, I have a very strong point of view. I believe schools are community anchors. They are social centers and meeting places. They are a part of a community’s identity. . . . I hope under this plan, students and schools will finally be given the resources they so desperately need so children can flourish.”

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, served on the School Closing Commission that held an exhaustive set of hearings across the city.

Brookins believes the political fallout for Emanuel will be minimal for three reasons: the number of school closings is a fraction of the original hit list, CPS has promised to put additional resources into schools inheriting displaced students and the declining enrollment in black neighborhoods is indisputable.

“Nobody likes to rip the Band-Aid off a scab. There will be a bristling up of certain aldermen. Everybody will stand up for their community. But I don’t think it will lead to a full-scale uprising” in the City Council, Brookins said.

Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) is not so sure Emanuel can get by unscathed. Not after closing 54 schools and 61 buildings and impacting 30,000 students — the largest public school upheaval the nation has ever seen.

“The problem this creates is, aldermen are being asked to stand down on a very contentious issue,” Munoz said.

“Some of my colleagues who have three, four or five schools shutting down in their wards are gonna feel the need to step out of line and step up against it. It’s gonna open some eyes. This could be the beginning of a very tense relationship with the City Council because he’s doing something unfathomable.”

A Chicago Sun-Times analysis of the school program closings show that CPS took pains to spread the pain around.

Aldermen Jason Ervin (28th) and Pat Dowell (3rd) will bear the greatest burden, with six cuts apiece. Four aldermen — Deborah Graham (29th), Walter Burnett (27th), Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Carrie Austin (34th) — will each take four hits.

Brookins and eight other aldermen — James Cappleman (46th), Roberto Maldonado (26th), Michael Chandler (24th), Willie Cochran (20th), JoAnn Thompson (16th), Roderick Sawyer (6th), Natashia Holmes (7th) and Leslie Hairston (5th) — each have two.

O’Connor, Munoz and five colleagues have one apiece: Proco Joe Moreno (1st), Will Burns (4th), Toni Foulkes (15th), LaTasha Thomas (17th) and Anthony Beale (9th).

That leaves 28 aldermen untouched by the shakeup.

Dowell said she started with 24 schools on the hit list, reduced it to 11 after the first set of hearings and feels fortunate to have survived with only two school closings.

“Overall, considering where I started and the fact my ward has been the focus of many school actions since 2010, I’m pleased with the decisions CPS made. My expectation is that CPS is gonna put the right resources into the remaining schools and help me create schools of choice for my constituents.”

Austin, chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee, was initially outspoken, telling the Chicago Tribune she would not tolerate attempts to “steamroll over black and brown folks.” She was quoted as saying Emanuel had “done us wrong this time” by “forgetting about the people who helped put him in office.”

The following day, Austin issued a statement that appeared to accept the inevitable, even as she acknowledged that it would “take some time” for parents and students to adjust.

“I believe CPS has committed itself to providing necessary supports that focus more resources on students. I strongly believe the projected outcomes will create better educational options based on the consolidation of resources that will be gained by these closures,” the statement quoted Austin as saying.

The change in Austin’s tune underscores the dilemma facing impacted aldermen.

They need to put up a good fight for their constituents. But they also know that a school system facing a $1 billion shortfall can no longer afford to keep half-empty buildings open. They also know that Emanuel is a political powerhouse who is the only game in town. They need to hold their fire and live to fight another day.

“If people think this is bad or painful, wait until the pension pigeons start coming home to roost,” O’Connor said.

David Axelrod, Emanuel’s friend of 30 years who worked together with the mayor in the White House under President Barack Obama, noted that there are nearly two years until the next mayoral election.

“We saw Jane Byrne get elected with black votes and spurn the black community. You don’t have that situation here. [Emanuel] is very active in these communities and committed. I’m confident he can navigate his way through this,” Axelrod said.

“In the short run, there will be a lot of anger and suspicion. But ultimately, the question for voters in those communities is gonna be, is what he’s produced better for their kids or not? You want your kids to go to a neighborhood school. But, if your kids end up in a better situation, you’ll say it was worth it.”

Contributing: Art Golab

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