DOWNTOWN — Chicago Public Schools head Barbara Byrd-Bennett strongly denied that planned school closings were "racist" and called the charge an "affront" to her as a woman of color at a Board of Education meeting Wednesday.
Byrd-Bennett, responding to repeated criticism of the plans to close 54 schools as targeting minorities, cited the loss of almost 200,000 African Americans from the city, mostly on the South and West sides, where many of the proposed school closings are concentrated due to declining enrollment.
"That is not racist," she said. "It is simply a fact.
"I've never felt more certain about the need to take action," she added. "When the status quo is not working, change is inevitable."
But parents, teachers and other critics weren't convinced the action wasn't racially motivated.
"I don't see how else it can be viewed," said Davetta Williams, an Auburn Gresham resident upset by the closings even though her children attend a South Side charter school not impacted by the action. "This system has consistently failed our community. It's failed our children. ... Closing schools is not the answer."
"You gave today a lovely speech, and I appreciate that about a woman of color," said Justice Stamps, a former Manierre Elementary student speaking on behalf of the Near North Side school, which is slated to close. "But you're not standing for us. You're not standing for our children."
Sarah Simmons, a Talcott parent and Parents 4 Teachers member, said she didn't believe the board or district planned to even listen to the community even though many public hearings remain before the board makes its final decision.
"We know that your decision has already been made, and your commitment to public input is a facade," Simmons said. "How do you sleep at night?"
Alison Burke, a Trumbull parent, said the Uptown school's closing would be "absolutely detrimental to Andersonville.
"Trumbull should be opened," she added. "We will keep fighting this."
Debate raged back and forth, with both sides insisting the other wasn't listening and both sides demanding respect they felt lacking in the other.
"This is a very difficult situation for all of us," said board member Mahalia Hines. "Let's disagree. But let's not be disrespectful."
Kathleen Murray, of the Chicago Teachers Union, said she found it "demoralizing" that "the board does not pay attention to what is being said." She asked board members to visit Kohn Elementary, slated to be closed.
Hines took offense, saying she had been to Kohn, and Board President David Vitale said he'd spent the first day of school there in the fall.
"Mahalia's right," Vitale said. "The school is a disaster," adding, "I'm tired of the accusations that the board doesn't go out to see schools."
"We demand respect just like you do," called out a person in the audience.
Wendy Katten, director of Raise Your Hand, a parent group opposed to the closings, pleaded with the board to "talk to the parents at every school, I'm begging you.
"Please do your research." She said closings would create "mass overcrowding at many of our schools."
Wendy Auffant, a parent at Courtenay Language Arts Center, a lottery school slated to merge with Stockton in Uptown, complained Courtenay wasn't even on the initial list of possible closures, meaning parents "were not provided with a community forum."
Several speakers attacked the board, entirely appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and several others were forced away from the microphone by CPS security guards after their appointed two minutes of public comment were up.
"Dr. Byrd, you say you're held accountable. But how? You're appointed by Rahm, not the people," said Natalie Wahlberg of Occupy CPS. She extended her criticism to the board, saying, "You are not elected by the people whose livelihoods are tied to our schools. You are not elected by the people whose communities are anchored by our schools. ...
"When legitimate educators and experts present you with irrefutable facts that closing schools and uprooting children's lives does no good and only harms children at closing and receiving schools, as you have heard so many times before, you ignore them," she added. "You are business people, not educators. You must be disbanded. We're coming for you."
And at that the a CPS security guard moved her away from the microphone.