CITY HALL — Dozens of protesters gathered outside the Mayor's Office Thursday to call on Chicago Public Schools parents to keep their kids out of school on Wednesday, the third day of the new school year.
"The third day of school is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington," said Jitu Brown, of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. "Part of our democracy is speaking up when you've been dealt an injustice. Part of our history in this country is being able to peacefully express your frustration when policies do not treat you right, when policies harm."
Community groups and CPS parent groups organized Wednesday's boycott to protest school closings, to call for Tax Increment Finance district funds to be redistributed to CPS to alleviate school budget cuts, and to demand an elected school board.
"We are striking a match for an elected, representative school board," Brown told protesters before Thursday's action at City Hall. "Until we get this school board, nothing else matters."
Protesters blamed Mayor Rahm Emanuel for the actions of the "rubber stamp" school board he has appointed. Dyett High School senior Parrish Brown said CPS was "sabotaging my school" and accused CPS of creating "school deserts" with the 50 closings.
Michelle Young, president of the community group Action Now, said school closings would place students at risk as they walk longer distances to so-called welcoming schools.
"Our children have been put in grave danger," Young said. "The attack on education and the rights of Chicago taxpayers is completely out of control.
"It is clear the mayor has no shame in his game," she added.
"When my grandchildren ask me why their school is closing, I have no answer," said Irene Robinson, a member of the Kenwood Oakland group and grandmother to students at the since-closed Overton Elementary. "Mr. Mayor, you don't have to walk your children through harm's way."
In a statement, CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the school system is coping with "historic billion-dollar deficit."
"The district has reduced central-office, administrative and operations spending by nearly $700 million since 2011 to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible," she said. "However, we can't cut our way out of this crisis and need meaningful pension reform that can generate significant savings and prevent devastating future cuts to our schools."
The Mayor's Press Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Several speakers connected Wednesday's planned action — in which protesters will meet outside CPS Headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. before the Board of Education meeting, then march on City Hall — with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington 50 years ago. They said King's dream had been largely deferred.
"Our schools are still segregated," Young said. "Our schools are still unequal. And our education system is still racist."
Protesters said the closings unfairly targeted minority-based schools on the South and West sides.
"Chicago has a long history of racism and segregation," said Sarah Simmons, of Parents 4 Teachers, who is also a Northside College Prep parent. "But the mayor and his henchmen have brought it out of the shadows and made it so concrete and so overt that we can't ignore it anymore."
Simmons said Parents 4 Teachers will have a hotline starting next week to field calls on any issues involving the so-called school transitions, including problems along safe-passage routes, increased class sizes, bullying, special-education matters and others. That number is 773-916-7484.
Wednesday's boycott, protesters said, would begin with a boycott of the Board of Education, which they called unresponsive to the public as it's been entirely appointed by Emanuel.
"I refuse to go to any more school-board meetings to talk to people who could not care less about what we say," Robinson said.
"We are definitely boycotting that school-board meeting, and we are working toward enough young people showing up that we can boycott the entire system," Brown said, adding he hoped that thousands would take part.
"They'll learn more about democracy in the streets of Chicago that day than they would learn in a month of classes," Simmons said.
"So Aug. 28, we are all asking parents to keep our children home from school," Robinson said. "Let's stand together to push for an elected, representative school board."
"They started this fight," Young said. "We intend to finish it."