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School Closings Plan Prompts Rancor At City Council, Board Of Ed Hearings

Opponents of plans to close 53 public schools at the end of the school year protest outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters on April 3, 2013, during a Board of Education meeting to discuss the plans. (Credit: CBS)

Opponents of plans to close 53 public schools at the end of the school year protest outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters on April 3, 2013, during a Board of Education meeting to discuss the plans. (Credit: CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) – Aldermen grilled Chicago Public Schools officials and Chicago Teachers Union members Wednesday, over the plan to close 53 schools at the end of the school year, while the head of the school district answered critics at a Board of Education meeting.

WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports aldermen at a City Council Education Committee hearing at City Hall seemed troubled by the school closing plans, and CTU political activities director Stacy Davis Gates suggested CPS is putting finances, not children, first.

“We are not drilling down on best practices. We are moving at warp speed with people who deserve our best work,” she said.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) silenced Gates with a question about the union’s position on school closings.

“Is there any concession that the unions are willing to make in order to keep all these schools open?” he asked.

Gates stammered at that question, prompting Beale to start humming the theme music from the game show Jeopardy, ending the exchange.

Meantime, CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett offered a dramatic defense of the school closings plan at a Board of Education hearing, where critics accused the district of racism.

CBS 2′s Jim Williams reports a handful of protestors marched outside CPS headquarters Wednesday morning; while inside the meeting, parents made spirited demands to keep their schools open.

The union has repeatedly called the plan to close 53 schools – most of them in poor, black neighborhoods – racist and classist.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has shown restraint in his responses to allegations of racism, but Byrd-Bennett – who is African-American – took on critics with both barrels on Wednesday.

2159 “What I cannot understand, and what I will not accept, are charges that the proposal I am offering are racist,” she said, as many in the crowd shot back, “they are.”

“To refuse to challenge the status quo that is failing thousands of African-American students year-after-year – consigning them to a future with less opportunities than others – now, that’s what I call racist,” Bryd-Bennett added.

Recalling her own upbringing, the defense she offered was personal.

“I grew up and went to schools in an overwhelming African-American community where the schools were under-utilized and under-resourced,” she said. “So, believe me, I know what racism and what racism is not. We owe every child in Chicago, especially those living in struggling communities, the opportunity for an education, a meaningful career, and an opportunity to become a success in life. Our children don’t get a second chance at education.”

Back at City Hall, CPS administrator Adam Anderson pledged the administration would make sure any students moved out of failing or under-utilized schools would have the resources they need at new schools.

“This is not the end of our community engagement. This is a process, this is a partnership that we want to continue; not just with school actions, but with everything that we do at CPS,” he said.

But Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said she wanted such guarantees in writing.

“The people in my community want to hold CPS accountable, because you all never keep your word,” she said. “If this is a new day, I want to see CPS make a commitment that is going to stand the test of time.”

But aldermen have no direct power to affect the closings. The final word on the school closings plan is up to the mayor’s appointed Board of Education, which will have a final vote on the plan in late May.