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Aldermen push for details on feared school closings

6th ward Alderman-elect Roderick Sawyer his campaign office 463 east 83rd. Thursday April 7 2011 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

6th ward Alderman-elect Roderick Sawyer in his campaign office, 463 east 83rd. Thursday, April 7, 2011 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: November 6, 2012 6:23AM

Thirty-two aldermen from across the city are demanding that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked school team come clean about what they fear is a secret plan to close more than 100 under-utilized Chicago Public Schools to pay for the newly-ratified teachers’ contract.

“CPS administration and, to a certain extent, the mayor’s office are playing hide the ball. That’s not acceptable,” Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said.

“We are the people who get blamed. If I’m gonna take the heat, I want to know what’s going on. Not letting us know what’s going on shows a blatant disrespect for us as elected officials.”

Although Emanuel has emphatically denied it, Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said he has been told by high-ranking CPS officials that there is a “master plan” to close 90- 100 under-used public schools to save money.

“Where are they? Why are they being closed? What are the boundary changes? Start telling the communities today. Let them partake in the discussion ahead of time on whether this school should be closed and how do we deal with our children going from one school to another crossing gang boundary lines.”

Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) added, “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.”

Emanuel’s repeated refusal to spell out how he plans to bankroll the four-year, $295 million teachers contract has fueled speculation that schools closings that have slowed to a trickle in recent years would turn into a flood.

School closings could trigger thousands of teacher layoffs and drive up class size. The issue was front-and-center during contract talks, prompting the Chicago Teachers Union to demand a recall policy that gives laid-off teachers a second chance.

On Wednesday, CTU President Karen Lewis predicted that one of the next big battles for the union would be over school closings.

“I’ve still got my boxing gloves on,” she said.

By Dec. 1, CPS officials must release the list of schools targeted for academic or enrollment closures or shakeups. To save money, CPS officials have said they need to eliminate under-used schools, and have estimated that, after initial costs, a shuttered building could generate $500,000 to $800,000 a year in savings.

However, Lewis insisted Wednesday that the initial costs just to physically close, pack up and secure a school are substantial. She said a former CPS “senior management” staffer estimated the tab at $300,000 to $1 million a school.

Lewis said she supported a resolution to hold a City Council hearing on school closings, saying the signatures of aldermen on the resolution were a welcome change from the resolution signed by 50 aldermen a year ago supporting a longer school day.

Specifically, aldermen want CPS to release a list of school closings and the estimated savings from those moves; spell out the criteria used to make those decisions and describe the seemingly contradictory “rationale” for opening as many as 60 more charter schools over the next five years while decreasing the inventory of public school buildings.

The resolution describes a “plethora of calls” to aldermanic offices from parents, educators and everyday residents “worried and outraged” by a downsizing they fear is being done to save money without regard to student safety or to school closing guidelines approved by the Illinois General Assembly.

The resolution was posted on the CTU website Wednesday night, but Fioretti denied working with the union to draft it. He further denied introducing the resolution to strengthen the union’s hand.

A few of the aldermen who co-signed the resolution also angered the CTU by signing a letter before the strike urging teachers to postpone it and stay on the job during negotiations.

“We all know we’re in tough economic times. But what we don’t want them to do is put a lot of money into schools only to close `em down, then turn around and make `em into a charter school,” Fioretti said.

Munoz recalled that one of his neighborhood schools landed on a school closing list a few years ago, despite the fact that the consolidation would have required displaced students to walk to a school “fourteen traffic lanes” away.

“It made no sense to have these kids walk a half mile to the receiving school crossing Cermak, Ogden and Pulaski. We fought that closure because it was not safe ­— and it did not happen,” Munoz said.

Beth Swanson, the mayor’s point person on education issues, could not be reached for comment on the resolution.

During the strike, Emanuel was asked repeatedly how many schools he intends to close.

“Nobody knows yet because we haven’t worked through this issue yet. There have been other issues ahead of that. That has not been decided at this point. I don’t know what they’re gonna do for consolidations,” he said then.

It’s not the first time aldermen have raised the roof about the secretive process for determining school closings.

Two years ago, then-Ald. Freddenna Lyle (6th) was so upset about the longtime top-down closing and consolidation process that had targeted two schools in her South Side ward that she co-sponsored a City Council resolution demanding a moratorium on closings.

She backed off after then-Schools CEO Ron Huberman promised to implement a five-step process that would have given parents and community leaders more than six months of advance warning and town hall meetings before schools were closed.

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