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Chicago's Emanuel faces new clash with teachers on school closings

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is headed for another clash in coming months with unionized teachers over whether to close dozens of schools, after a bitter teachers strike temporarily shut down the nation's third largest public school district in September.

Facing a December 1 deadline to issue a proposed list of schools to be closed, new Chicago Public Schools chief executive Barbara Byrd-Bennett on Friday asked the state legislature for a four-month delay until March 31.

She said time was needed for a "rigorous, transparent and open dialogue" with school parents, teachers and other.

Feelings are still raw after the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years drew national attention to the city's dispute over education reform.

Chicago teachers and some parents complain that Emanuel's administration has ignored their concerns.

Chicago has seen a 20 percent surge in the number of murders this year, and people in crime ravaged neighborhoods worry that closing schools might force students to cross gang boundaries and increase urban violence.

More than 200 people, including teachers union members, parents of Chicago school students and other activists, rallied against school closings at Emanuel's office on Friday, and some staged a sit-in nearby.

Urban school districts around the country are grappling with the same issue of closing schools, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Washington, according to a study last year on school closings by the Pew Charitable Trust.

In a statement on Friday, Byrd-Bennett acknowledged the delay was requested to repair a rift with some in the community.

"Our goal is to give the community the respect they deserve in this process, rebuild trust with CPS (Chicago Public Schools) and create a path for right-sizing our district," she said.

But the union said it wants a halt to school closing rather than extending the deadline.

"We have called for a moratorium on all school actions until we have an analysis of the devastating impact these actions have on our students and neighborhoods," said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis in a statement.

Emanuel said that, in the wake of the strike settlement, the district needs to have a more effective education plan.

"We have more buildings, chairs, tables and desks than we have students in our district," he said in a statement.

ENROLLMENT DOWN

The Chicago Tribune has reported that school district officials are considering closing up to 120 schools next year, or about 17 percent of schools in the 400,0000-student district. The district said there is no list of targeted schools.

Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has fallen nearly 20 percent in the last decade, mainly because of population declines in poor neighborhoods.

Some 140 schools are half-empty, according to the district. The union said 86 Chicago public schools have closed in the past decade, but the district could not confirm that number.

At the heart of the dispute is the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but most are non-union.

The teachers union has complained they undermine public education and force more community schools to close. Their academic performance record compared with community schools is mixed, according to national studies.

Chicago now has 103 charter or "contract" schools, some run by philanthropists, which account for 12 percent of students. There are plans by supporters for 60 more charter schools over the next five years, according to the district and the union.

A powerful U.S. education movement is pushing charter schools. Emanuel and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, argue that schools performing poorly in academics should either be closed permanently, reopened with new principals and teachers, or converted to charter schools run by non-union personnel.

Teachers say they want more resources put into neighborhood public schools to help them succeed.

One Chicago school that has already been marked for a gradual closing is Dyett High School on the city's South Side. The school's academic standing is low, with a graduation rate of 33.7 percent in 2011 compared with 57.5 percent for Chicago public schools on average and a national rate of 75 percent.

But Kitesha Reggs, whose daughter attends Dyett, said the school lacks needed resources such as up-to-date books or enough computers. Reggs said that once Dyett closes, students may have to travel far for an alternative.

"It's just a safety issue," Reggs said. "They should be in their own neighborhood."

School district spokeswoman Becky Carroll said that for this year, academic criteria would not be used to determine school closings.

(Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Todd Eastham)

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