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CTU chief asks school board to slow down, guarantees ‘we can work together’

Asean Johnsthird-grader Gravey Elementary School stands for portrait after addressing Chicago Board EducatiWednesday April 24 2013 about proposed closing his

Asean Johnson, a third-grader at Gravey Elementary School stands for a portrait after addressing the Chicago Board of Education Wednesday April 24, 2013 about the proposed closing of his school. | Jessica Koscielniak ~ Sun-Times via Hipstamatic

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Updated: May 29, 2013 6:24AM

As Chicago Public Schools ramps up toward a historic number of school closings, the Chicago Teachers Union president took a conciliatory tone toward the Board of Education on Wednesday, but parents at schools doomed for closure continued to beg for relief.

The school board, which will vote on 54 school closings when they next meet on May 22,approved on Wednesday $363 million in additions to the beleaguered district’s capital budget, much of which finances the costs of consolidating schools. That includes $10 million for iPads; $145 million in investments in receiving buildings; $51 million for co-locations, and $11,000 for turnarounds. The $145 million includes $18 million for air conditioning; $20 million for accessibility, and $4 million in safety improvements.

The district will use $33.9 million in city tax-increment financing money and sell bonds for the remaining $329.8million.

Schools CEOBarbara Byrd-Bennett said the district is staring down a $1 billion deficit by spring. She seeks to close 54 schools to better allocate the district’s resources and has promised the 55 schools receiving displaced children that they’ll get air conditioning, libraries, new paint and iPads for all third- to eighth-graders if they don’t already have them.

CTUpresident Karen Lewis asked the board to consider slowing down to handle such massive closings “right and not quickly.” Taking a cooperative approach, she didn’t mention her request for a moratorium on school closings, but she assured the board “there are plenty of areas that we can work together.”

“Accuracy is infinitely more important than speed. Unless you’re running a sprint. This should not be a sprint. Our children’s education cannot be a sprint,” Lewis said. “I can guarantee there are ways we can work together to come up with something infinitely better.”

Parents, teachers and Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), representing at least 10 schools, begged to spare schools including Marcus Garvey, Trumbull and Henson.

Though CPS findsHenson Elementary School under capacity, the North Lawndale school has a full-service health clinic and full-time nurse practitioner for children such as Litteania Bailey’s son, who has chronic asthma and allergies.

“I feel safe having him at Henson knowing the clinic is there for him in case he may ever need his EpiPen,” Bailey said.

But Ald. Mary O’Connor and principals from overcrowded schools in her Northwest Side ward begged CPS to consider not just the schools set for closure that are under capacity, but the ones that are bursting with almost double the children they were built to hold. Wildwood Elementary is at 175 percent capacity by the calculations CPS used to close schools. Oriole Park Elementary School is at 167 percent capacity.

“My schools have given up their libraries, cafeterias, gymnasiums and science labs in order to accommodate the number of students who enter their doors,” O’Connor said. “The hallways are packed with furniture, wheelchairs, book racks and countless other items that belong in a closet, not in a location that jeopardizes the safety of our children and violates so many safety codes.”

Board President David Vitale acknowledged the overcrowding.

“It is a challenge we recognize and try to deal with,” he said. “We don’t like schools to be underutilized but we don’t like overcrowding either.”

On Wednesday, the board also voted to approve expanding and renewing charter school. The newest board member, Carlos Azcoitia, said he couldn’t vote to add any more elementary seats to a district that was about to close schools. He was the one “no” vote on the renewals of several charter schools.

They passed anyway, with about 14 charters renewed or approved.

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