Ministers sound political alarm for Emanuel over school closings
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org March 27, 2013 10:52AM
Updated: April 29, 2013 11:50AM
Black ministers whom former Mayor Richard M. Daley counted among his most loyal supporters broke with Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday on the volatile issue of school closings and warned that the political firestorm could burn Emanuel’s re-election chances.
African-American voters helped put Emanuel in office after President Barack Obama’s pivotal endorsement of his former chief of staff, but the ministers say they are bitterly disappointed in Emanuel’s performance on school and crime issues.
Calling it a “land grab” that puts children in danger, they urged Emanuel to call off or scale back his plan to close 54 elementary schools, but the mayor didn’t budge.
He’s done negotiating after starting with 300 schools, eliminating high schools and the best-performing, under-enrolled schools and further reducing the hit list to ensure that displaced students go to a better-quality school no more than 1.5 miles away.
It’s now time to move on to “making the changes necessary so we live up to the pledges that were made — that every child will go to a school with a library, air conditioning, technology and better quality — and the safety is there” for displaced students on Day One, the mayor said.
Emanuel argued that the largest public school consolidation in the nation’s history is necessary to accommodate population losses and improve both educational outcomes and the bottom line of a Chicago Public School system facing a $1 billion shortfall.
He called it intolerable that CPS has a 61 percent graduation rate for all students, but a 44 percent graduation rate for black males.
The ministers who hand-delivered a letter to the mayor on Wednesday don’t buy it.
“It’s much too rushed to do the most vulnerable children any good. The safety plan obviously is not in place. Some of the kids are actually going from a challenging school to a worse school,” said the Rev. Marshall Hatch, senior pastor of New Mount Pilgrim MB Church.
“To have an education exodus and economic dis-investment in the middle of a violence crisis is not in the interest of these communities, particularly the most vulnerable children from the most fragile families.”
Hatch noted that West Garfield Park, where his church is located, stands to lose five elementary schools. That’s fueled speculation that the school closings set the stage for a land grab, he said.
“I wouldn’t say that’s the goal, but that’s gonna be the effect. When you close the schools, it moves people off the land and allows real estate speculators to buy land at cheap prices. All of these properties will eventually be banked and bought for little or nothing,” Hatch said.
The Rev. Ira Acree, senior pastor of the St. John Bible Church of Chicago, said his Austin parishioners are afraid of being left with “a lot of boarded up schools” while their children are forced to cross gang boundaries to get to new schools farther away.
“We want this runaway train halted. ... It’s not the time to close all of these schools in the midst of an urban violence crisis. The mayor would do himself a great service to pause for a minute and clear some of the fear,” Acree said.
Bishop Larry Trotter of Sweet Holy Spirit Church of Chicago, added, “Go back and see if there’s ... another way to get the money they need for education without closing so many schools. If he goes ahead, a lot of people will be hurt and a lot of people will not consider him for re-election.”
Daley nurtured his close working relationship with black ministers through city grants, programs and land deals.
“We disagreed with Mayor Daley on some things, but he had a very clear heart for the people. I’m not sure the new mayor has that same desire. A lot of things are being done that may have some wrong motives. I don’t think he’s come out strongly as it pertains to poor people,” Trotter said.
“A lot of people voted for [Emanuel] believing he could help Chicago, and now they’re disappointed in him because he’s hurt Chicago. Look at the things he ran on, such as education and crime. Now, we’re closing schools, and we haven’t done much about crime.”
Trotter likened the 54 school closings to the Blizzard of ‘79 that buried then-Mayor Michael Bilandic.
“The city was not prepared. When Bilandic ran for re-election, the last thing people remembered was the snowstorm. The same thing will happen to Mayor Emanuel. If he doesn’t do something about the schools and crime, it’ll be one of the last things people remember,” Trotter said.
Emanuel said if he was worried about his political future, he wouldn’t be pushing school closings.
“I ... love this job. It’s a great job — the best job I’ve ever had in public life. But, if your graduation rate is ... 44 percent for African-American male adolescents and because of politics you refuse to take a step? That’s not right — especially because you can do something about it,” he said.
“We are locking children into a system that is falling woefully short of their full potential and we can do better and what helped stop us in the past was politics. I believe that is a call to action.”