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Dad to school-closing panel: I trust you ‘No farther than I can throw you’

Laurie Smith explains her viewpoint during public forum with CommissiSchool UtilizatiSalem Baptist Church 752 E. 114th street regarding proposed school

Laurie Smith explains her viewpoint during a public forum with the Commission on School Utilization at Salem Baptist Church at 752 E. 114th street regarding proposed school closings in Chicago Monday December 3, 2012. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 5, 2013 6:27AM

Don’t close our schools. Consider the gang borders kids might be forced to cross.

And stop sending children far away from their homes, parents said Monday night, their first chance to address an independent commission tasked with making school closing recommendations.

“You are going to destroy communities,” said Laurie Smith, of Esmond Elementary School, a small school in Morgan Park.

“We are in the 19th Ward. So where are you going to bus our kids to? We need to know as parents. We scared too.

“If our kids leave, they might not come back.”

About 100 people joined her at the House of Hope, the megachurch in Roseland run by the Rev. James Meeks, an independent state senator and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, who moderated the discussion.

It was the public’s first shot at sharing their concerns about closing schools with the commission created by CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to bolster “community engagement” in an often painful process.

And at the first of six such hearings, its chairman, retired ComEd CEO Frank Clark, was unclear about whether the commission would actually come up with a list of schools it believes should go, or just hand CPS what he called “a broad a set of recommendations.”

Parents at the meeting Monday were anything but unclear.

A few shouted during their allotted three minutes. Some pleaded.

Leslie Austin Thomas’s voice shook with emotion as she described her “heartfelt” reaction to problems surrounding the Charles Wacker Elementary School her daughters attended.

“How do you fill classrooms when the majority of the homes in our communities are boarded up?

“Those children are no longer in the neighborhood, and I would hate for this commission not to understand the entire picture because it’s going to be different for every Chicago public school.”

Parents and community groups already sat through an education committee hearing at City Hall before Thanksgiving, upset they were not allowed to speak. And so far, hearings held by Byrd-Bennett’s nine-member independent commission have welcomed only speakers previously invited.

CPS wants to “right size” a district it says has 100,000 more seats than student. The district pledged to base this year’s closures and consolidations on utilization, not poor academics.

Clark, also a Rahm Emanuel appointee to McCormick Place, told the crowd that no list exists of schools slated for shuttering.

“You clearly don’t trust CPS,” he told one father. “You don’t trust us.”

“No farther than I can throw you,” Ronald Jackson responded.

“I can tell you we’re listening. That’s all I can tell you,” Clark said.

“You might be listening but the board is not listening,” Jackson responded.

Community activist Phyllis E. Palmer complained about the make-up of the commission itself.

“We have begged for community people,” she said. “No wonder people don’t trust you. They don’t recognize any of you. There are not people from these communities on these commissions.”

“You need to be out there and see for yourself. And you also need community on these boards.”

Tiye Hayes DeVore , the Local Schools Council Chair at the Jane A. Neil school, asked commissioners to consider more than numbers at schools such as Neil, which has a large special education population.

The deadline to announce which schools CPS aims to close or consolidate was successfully moved to March 31 on Friday, when Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill changing state law. Byrd-Bennett said if the extension were granted, CPS would not shutter any more schools for five years, though the nation’s third-largest district could shake schools up for academic reasons.

The Chicago Teachers Union pushed in vain for at least a one-year moratorium to make sure that the schools to be closed are truly underused.

Parents complained that Monday’s meeting was not well publicized, nor was its time and location posted on the Chicago Public Schools website.

More meetings at which the public may speak will be held Friday, 7 to 9 p.m. at Marquette Park, 6743 S. Kedzie Ave., and at several other locations the following week yet to be determined.

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