CHICAGO — As protesters prepared for a massive afternoon rally against school closures, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel continued to defend the plan Wednesday, suggesting there is no room for negotiation on the 54 schools slated to be closed.
Talking with reporters about the closures after being largely absent from the public eye since the plan was announced, he suggested the "process" of whittling down the list of schools to close had played itself out — despite the dozens of community meetings still scheduled to discuss the proposed closures.
The mayor said he knows the plan to close 54 schools, which would affect about 30,000 students and 1,000 teachers, was politically unpopular — but still insisted it is the right thing to do.
"When our educational system has unequal results, you cannot lock in the status quo," he said. "The steps being taken were postponed for years — because of politics."
CPS hopes the move will help close its $1 billion budget deficit, and projects annual savings of $43 million. Critics have complained the closures would disproportionately affect students in poorer areas where blacks and Hispanics live. The majority of the schools slated for closure are on the South and West sides.
Emanuel countered, "Education is the great equalizer," and pointed to how the graduation rate for African-American males, 44 percent, lagged behind the overall CPS graduation rate of 61 percent.
"Our education system is not living up to the full potential of our children," he added.
At the same time, he suggested the "process" had played itself out, and there was no place for negotiation on the 54 schools now slated to be closed.
Emanuel said Wednesday that he has "absolute confidence" in Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett and that all students at closing schools will be moved to better schools.
"Barbara Byrd-Bennett is tough enough, she's smart enough and she's sensitive enough to see this through," he added. His opponents, however, aren't so confident.
"The problem with [Mayor Emanuel's] promises is that we don’t believe CPS has the capacity to plan and manage such a massive, disruptive change," Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said. "The board has never handled anything like this in the past, nor have previous closings produced improved academic results."