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Chicago aldermen blast school closings, worry about children’s safety

School closing protesters outside School Board President David Vitale's Kenwood home.Thursday March 21 2013 | Brian Jackson~Sun Times

School closing protesters outside of School Board President David Vitale's Kenwood home.Thursday, March 21, 2013 | Brian Jackson~Sun Times

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Updated: April 23, 2013 2:09PM



One alderman called it a “slow death” politically and worried about real bloodshed triggered by “babies walking through gang turf.”

Another questioned how a Police Department so short of manpower it’s paying 400 officers a day to work overtime in high-crime neighborhoods can guarantee the safety of kids traveling further to school.

Thursday was D-day for Chicago aldermen, who found out after numerous public hearings and countless hours of behind-the-scenes lobbying how many schools in their wards will be closed, consolidated or turned around.

It wasn’t pretty. On all-at-once orders from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago is embarking on the largest public school upheaval the nation has ever seen.

“If this thing don’t work, it’s a time bomb waiting to explode — for all of us. …It’s a mistake to close a whole bunch of schools at the same time,” said Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward has five school closings and ten impacted schools.

“I don’t know how they’re gonna stop violence from happening. These little babies have got to walk through gang territory. On the West Side, unfortunately, every other block is a different gang. I hope it don’t stop kids from going to school.”

Burnett noted that near Cabrini Green, two schools are being consolidated that have been “fighting since I was a kid. ... These are life-long grudges.”

He added, “In some of these neighborhoods, parents can’t even take their kids to school. It’s not safe. It’s worse for parents than it is for kids. Police have got to show me a real plan about how they can keep people safe. I don’t believe it.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), whose West Side ward has 11 impacted schools, added, “My biggest concern is safety and distance. Those two go hand in hand. We have to make sure that, whatever happens, the students are safe. I don’t want to see another Derrion Albert situation. That’s something that will be squarely on the shoulders of CPS.”

Derrion was an honors student beaten to death in a mob attack near Fenger Academy in 2009.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), whose ward has close to 20 impacted schools, recalled that it took 10 police squad cars and helicopter hovering overhead to ensure the “safe passage” of students after the 2008 murder of Ruben Ivy outside Crane H.S. caused attendance to plunge to 30 percent.

“We don’t have enough police officers on the streets to ensure the safety of these kids. We are stretched so thin right now, we’re racking up overtime at an unbelievable rate. And we’re not even talking about the impact on guys and gals on the street and them being tired,” Fioretti said.

Fioretti also criticized Emanuel for dropping the political bombshell of school closings while out of town for a spring break ski trip to Utah with his wife and kids.

“It’s his CPS. If he feels like he wants to be out of town when it happens, it’s a slap in the face to the citizens. He’s not here to answer any questions or stand by his head of the school system,” Fioretti said.

“He knows the publicity realm. He’s nowhere to be found when he needs to respond to the people.”

Even Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, wasn’t spared the pain of school closings. His ward includes Trumbull Elementary, with nearly 32 percent special education students.

“This is a very bitter pill to swallow. It’s not a decision the City Council is making, but it’s clearly a decision we’re gonna have to live with. The unfortunate thing is, all of us who are currently here are paying the price for a system that didn’t make these decisions as they should have been made all along,” O’Connor said.

“It clearly is gonna be very tough for members of the Council effected by this. But the mayor has been making it eminently clear over the last 18 months that these are the types of decisions that have to be made to get our financial house in order. He’s been saying it since he campaigned for the office. As somebody this is happening to, it’s not something I’m happy with, but it’s not a surprise. Unless you haven’t been listening, you knew this was coming. And if people think this is bad or painful, wait until the pension pigeons start coming home to roost.”

O’Connor scoffed at suggestions that Emanuel is showing political cowardice by timing the explosive announcement while out of town.

“If the mayor couldn’t leave town whenever there was an issue, he’d essentially never leave his office because there’s always an issue,” O’Connor said.

“This is the time when his children are off. It’s not like he’s leaving town, and the controversy will have ended when he gets back. He’ll be back in a day or two, and this thing will be waiting for him. Anybody who knows him knows he’s intimately involved in what’s going on minute-by-minute, day-by-day, regardless of whether he’s in Chicago.”

Emanuel has ordered CPS to get the political pain over with in one fell-swoop — kind of like removing a Band-Aid.

In fact, after convincing the Illinois General Assembly to push back the deadline for releasing a list of school closings until March 31, the mayor agreed not to close any more schools for five years.

Still, Fioretti and others believe the mayor is making a grave mistake.

“They could have done this in a rational way and spread it out over a period of time. They are under a legal obligation to develop a master plan and present that to the public. They have yet to do that. From A to Z, they have fumbled the ball,” he said.

“They wanted to get it done now instead of later so they won’t have to deal with it. But people don’t vote at the ballot box. They’re walking with their feet. This is going to speed up people leaving for the suburbs.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) added, “I don’t subscribe to all at once. I don’t disagree with the goal. I’m questioning the method. It wouldn’t have hurt to have spent a little more time on this” and wait for the 10-year facilities master plan, due on July 1.

As for the countless public hearings, Sawyer called them a divisive and destructive joke.

“Those hearings weren’t productive. I’ve been to them. They were cannibalism. Good people pitted against each other because each one was trying to save their individual school,” he said.

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) feels like he dodged a bullet. He started out with 30 schools on the hit list but ended up with six impacted schools, two closings and “advanced programming” at receiving schools, including International Baccalaureate programs.

“That means children are getting the resources they deserve to get better outcomes. I’m very happy about the IB programs and turnaround that may be coming to the 20th Ward. The board has done its homework and come back with educational resources for the children in those other schools,” he said.

“We knew everybody was not gonna be happy when this happened. But I’m concerned about one school in particular. Outside of that, we can manage this and I can see some gains educationally for children of 20th Ward.”

Still, Cochran urged the mayor to be flexible about the timetable.

“The mayor is smart enough to make adjustments if he needs to. He’s said, `We want to do everything, then nothing for five years.’ But if, after he gets feedback, it appears there needs to be a two-or three-year process, so be it,” he said.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), the City Council’s president pro tem and a strong mayoral ally, was not among the aldermen griping.

After a decade of population losses, Harris said it was time for Chicago in general and the African-American community in particular to face the painful reality of school closings.

“My community doesn’t have as many children as we had 25 years ago, when working families were raising children. I have a lot of retired people living within my boundaries. It’s a reality of the world we live in. It’s all about the numbers. The numbers don’t lie,” Harris said.

“They’ve already done a yeoman’s job. At first, the number [of potential closings] was 130. To get it down to a number below 100 is tremendous. I’m truly grateful. Barbara Byrd-Bennett is committed to doing a number of things. She seems to be a woman of her word. If she’s allowed to do her plan, there doesn’t have to be fall-out for anybody.”



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