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Activists Say Poor Neighborhoods Will Bear Brunt of School Closings

By Ted Cox | December 6, 2012 5:39pm
 Action Now President Michelle Young speaks at a protest against school closings last month.
Action Now President Michelle Young speaks at a protest against school closings last month.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CHICAGO — Local activists say the Chicago Public Schools plan to shutter "underutilized" schools locks already vulnerable communities into a death spiral.

"They are making us the victims, which I think is unfair," said Michelle Young, president of Action Now, a community group spanning the South and West Sides. "They must take into consideration how foreclosures force people to move, (which) limits enrollment."

Action Now has worked to address the issues of both potential school closings and rampant foreclosures.

Young says the two are linked, and CPS is threatening to continue the cycle, as closing schools suffering from low enrollment makes people less likely to move into a neighborhood that has no school.

 CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey addresses a school-closing protest at City Hall.
CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey addresses a school-closing protest at City Hall.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CPS released a list of underutilized schools this week, with the vast majority on the South and West Sides.

The list is believed to be a step on the way to closing 100 schools or more as CPS deals with a budget deficit that's been estimated at $1 billion.

CPS recently won a delay in the General Assembly to announce school closings for the fall by the end of March, and Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett has promised a five-year moratorium on additional closings — after next year.

CPS only recently changed the primary criterion to "space utilization" to determine which schools should be closed from "underperforming" schools to "underutilized" schools, although Byrd-Bennett added in a statement that it was "the beginning of a conversation we need to have with the community, not an end."

The Sun-Times pointed to Willa Cather Elementary School in Garfield Park on the West Side on the list of the 15 most vacant schools and in danger of closure, in spite of rapidly rising test scores.

Critics like Young say the policy places the burden for budgetary school closings unfairly on neighborhoods that are already troubled.

CPS argues that it's simply targeting areas with fewer children.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey has argued against school closings in part to protect jobs, but he also says the shift in policy is "deeply racist" and "certainly may exacerbate a pattern of racial segregation."

He's also accused CPS of favoring charter schools and privatization at the urging of the Emanuel administration.

"They have no problem with charter schools not being overcrowded," Young said. "And then they're going to shut down the public schools? I don't think so."

Young blamed Mayor Rahm Emanuel and previous Mayor Richard M. Daley for the budget problems and the potential school closings. "All of this started with them, the mayors getting in it," she added. "It's all politics if you ask me."

The Mayor's Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Action Now has demanded an immediate moratorium on school closings, and is also pushing for an elected Board of Education, which Young says would be more responsive to the public than the board appointed by the mayor.

Young said Action Now plans to continue organizing protests on the issue.

"We're not going to just idly sit back and let them close the doors on our schools," she said. "I refuse that."