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Emanuel on ‘consolidating’ schools: ‘We know we have to do it’

Updated: November 12, 2012 12:09PM

Chicago Public Schools have 600,000 seats and only 400,000 kids, underscoring the need to “consolidate” under-utilized schools that should been closed over the last decade, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday.

Thirty-two aldermen from across the city have introduced a resolution demanding that Emanuel’s handpicked school team come clean about what aldermen fear is a secret plan to close more than 100 under-utilized schools to help to pay for the newly-ratified teachers’ contract.

During a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Emanuel insisted that he doesn’t know yet how many schools would be on the hit-list.

But, the mayor made no bones about it: After taking “a step back” from the last crisis — the seven-day strike by Chicago teachers — he plans to confront a controversy Chicago has avoided for a decade, when the population declined and shifted while school closings slowed to a trickle.

“I don’t have the whole list for you. I don’t know the number. We know we have to do it. But, I want to do it in a way that engages the community to have a discussion about a plan. … You have to do it in a way that engages people,” Emanuel said.

“I consider it consolidating. …We have 600,000 seats, 400,000 children. So, we have to deal with it. And we have to do it in a respectful way. … We have to deal with … the fact that, over the years, what could have been done over a decade … was not done. It was all postponed.”

Pressed to describe how he plans to engage the community, Emanuel said, “We’re working through a number of areas. I had some meetings with some individual ministers yesterday.”

In the past, parents and the aldermen who represent them have raised the roof about school closings that endanger students by requiring them to travel further to school, sometimes across rival gang turf.

The mayor did not minimize the political blood-letting that lies ahead. In fact, he went so far as to correct a Sun-Times Editorial Board member who said parents would be persuaded by the argument that it’s inefficient to keep half-empty schools open.

“You’re making an assumption. Since I’m a little out more than you in the community, let me make this one difference if I can. You think they’re persuaded by the argument that it’s financially [inefficient]. I’m not sure they are, and I would probably bet against it,” Emanuel said.

“They think that’s my problem — not theirs. That’s a convenient school. That’s where they went or they know somebody. And that’s where they want to send their kids. So, engaging wider interests in the community — both religious and others in the process of thinking through a plan — not just [for] that school, but or the community, is the approach that’s being thought through.”

Also on Wednesday, Emanuel said he hopes to “figure out a working relationship” with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis “so we can make progress on a host of issues and challenges more from a cooperative” foundation.

But, he made no apologies for the heavy-handed tactics that, teachers contend, set the stage for the strike.

Not only did the mayor raise the strike threshold to a level he thought Lewis would never be able to achieve. He allegedly threw a four-letter word at her, canceled a previously negotiated 4 percent pay raise and used cash bounties to entice local schools to immediately implement his longer school day.

“I disagree with your characterization. And I am proud that we got a longer school day. And I don’t have the luxury to sometimes bemoan a problem. I’ve got to go solve it. And I’ve thrown my political weight to get it done and I think our kids are gonna be better off,” the mayor said.

“We went through two contract asking for the same hour and fifteen minutes and never got it.”

The mayor’s sketchy plan to engage the broader community on the volatile issue of school closings should come as welcome news to aldermen who co-signed the resolution demanding City Council hearings.

“The biggest concern is that the board will just hand down a list of closures and expect everybody to go along with it. That’s what they’ve done in the past,” Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) said last week.

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