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Chicago offers to pause school closings after 2013 cuts

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on Monday he wants a five-year moratorium on closing public schools after anticipated cuts in 2013, but the teachers union called his gesture a "sleight of hand."

The third-largest school district in the United States, which was hit with a strike by public school teachers in September, was already facing a financial crisis that was made worse by granting pay rises to teachers.

The school district forecasts a $1 billion deficit next year and is widely expected to try to balance its budget in part by closing public schools.

Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has fallen nearly 20 percent in the last decade, mainly because of population declines in poor neighborhoods. The district said it can accommodate 500,000 students, but only about 400,000 are enrolled.

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.

Urban school districts around the country are grappling with the issue declining enrollment, including in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., according to a study last year on school closings by the Pew Charitable Trust.

The first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years drew national attention to the city's dispute over education reforms such as teacher evaluations. The teachers were given a pay rise as part of the strike settlement.

Chicago teachers and some parents have complained that the school district has ignored their concerns.

The offer of a five-year moratorium was seen as an attempt by Emanuel, who has championed education reform and has repeatedly clashed with the teachers union, to provide some stability to Chicago schools after closings in the coming year.

"Mayor Emanuel recognizes that for many years CPS (Chicago Public Schools) has made too many piecemeal decisions around school actions, which has caused unnecessary disruptions to students, parents and schools across the city," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was appointed by Emanuel after the strike ended to head the district.

Byrd-Bennett spoke to a business group on Monday at the City Club of Chicago.

The district faces a December 1 deadline to issue a proposed list of schools to be closed, although Byrd-Bennett has asked the Illinois legislature for a four-month delay until March 31.

The Chicago Tribune has reported that school district officials are considering closing up to 120 schools next year, or about 17 percent of the total. The district has established a commission to study the issue.

Byrd-Bennett told reporters on Monday that the district does not have a number under consideration.

At the heart of the dispute over school closings is the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded, but mostly non unionized. The number of charter schools has risen even as neighborhood public schools are closed.

"Today's announcement is nothing more than a sleight of hand," the Chicago Teachers Union said in a statement. "How can the district cry 'under-utilization' as a justification for school closings while it simultaneously approves the opening of new charter campuses?"

The teachers union has complained that charter schools undermine public education and force more community schools to close. The academic performance record of charter schools 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.

The union said 88 percent of students affected by Chicago school closings or other actions in the past decade were African-American and most closed schools have been in poor neighborhoods.

(Editing by Greg McCune, Matthew Lewis and Andre Grenon)

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