CHICAGO — As protesters gathered downtown and prepared to march on Chicago Public Schools headquarters, the city's education chief awaited them unruffled.
"I fully support the rights of all the individuals to express their opinions," CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in an interview with DNAinfo.com Chicago Wednesday afternoon. "It's much like I did in my youth. I supported the civil-rights movement. I was one of the people, protesting.
"I do believe, however, as CEO of this district, I need to make some decisions that will put our children and their learning first and before all else," she said, adding that protests were almost inevitable. "It's a part of the democratic process in my line. And they clearly have that right."
Byrd-Bennett insisted, however, that the process continues to play itself out, and no final decision has yet been reached on the 54 schools slated to be closed as others merge. She said she had already been through 2,000 pages of material gathered from community meetings leading up to last week's release of the list.
"Now, as I've presented a list to the board, during the months of April and May there will be a series of hearings that are required by law," she added. "The board will then make their decision about whether they redefine the list that I've submitted to them. That will be the board's decision."
"This is not a final list," added CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll.
Both took issue with the perception that CPS had created, or at least exacerbated, the so-called underutilization problem by approving charter schools at the same time it is closing others.
"It's not something we created, manufactured," Byrd-Bennett said. "We don't assign children to charters. I'm almost astounded that people would draw that conclusion."
"Parents choose to send their children there," Carroll added. "That is parental choice."
According to Carroll, 65 percent of the underutilization problem is due to the city losing 181,000 African-American residents, mostly on the West and South Sides, in the last census. "This didn't happen overnight," she said, adding that an estimated 18 percent of the problem was due to students abandoning neighborhood schools for charters.
Byrd-Bennett was sympathetic to the problems created by so many schools closings from an urban-planning perspective.
"We do understand, and I understand, that vacant buildings do not do any community any good," she said. "So the parallel track for us is repurposing those buildings."
Many, she said, would be converted to social-service agencies, housing and centers for "faith-based" organizations.
Carroll emphasized that "safe passage" concerns would be studied throughout the transition, and that CPS would be holding activities during the summer intended to help blend schools that are either merging or welcoming students from a closed school.
At the same time, however, protests figure to continue through the summer as well. "I have no expectations about protesting," Byrd-Bennett said. "I do have expectations that we need to get on with the work."