Although Chicago teachers have signed off on their new contract, the lingering anxiety about the future of the city's public education system surfaced Thursday as aldermen stepped up a call for hearings on potential school closings.
Chicago Public Schools officials say publicly that there is no specific school-closing plan, but aldermen and other sources have told the Tribune that discussions focus on closing 80 to 120 sparsely populated and underperforming schools.
If the Board of Education is looking at so many closings, which schools are being considered and under what criteria should be revealed to the public, said Ald. Robert Fioretti, 2nd, sponsor of a City Council resolution calling for hearings that's backed by 32 of his colleagues.
"I think our communities need input into each and every closure," Fioretti said. "And if it's transparent, and we have an open dialogue, people will look on these closures with an understanding of what is happening. The way the board operates, they do things in a vacuum and tell the community later."
Nearly 80 percent of Chicago Teachers Union members voted this week to approve the contract that emerged from the strike, which lasted seven school days, and the school board is expected to follow suit later this month.
The board also must grapple with how to pay increased costs of the contract, estimated at about $74 million this year, before turning to a budget shortfall that the district estimates will reach $1 billion next year.
Ways to cut costs over the long term include closing schools and opening more privately run charter schools — which left union President Karen Lewis combative Thursday despite her fresh victory.
"No contract will solve everything or heal the deepening chasm between public school educators and those who would privatize and close" public schools, she said.
Lewis went on to say school closings will be the next big fight. "I still got my boxing gloves," she said.
Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno, 1st, was among the majority of aldermen who joined the call for council hearings.
"I think school closings historically have probably not been the most transparent process, and for us to have hearings is what the community is demanding," Moreno said. "If we're going to start closing 40, 50, 60, 80, 100 schools, I think it's appropriate for us to have hearings on those. And if we disagree on that, that's one thing, but we should have hearings to get a full picture of it."
Ald. Michael Chandler, 24th, who has some low-attendance schools in his West Side ward, said he signed the resolution because he doesn't want his constituents to get blindsided by closings.
"So far I haven't heard anything" from the administration, Chandler said. "We hope they take this chance to be as open and transparent as possible, so we can help people understand what's going on."
Lewis noted that a year ago, all 50 aldermen signed a pledge backing Emanuel's push for a longer school day, something the union opposed. Still, Lewis indicated she supports the current effort to hold hearings. "Now (the aldermen) have signed a pledge to say the school closing piece is a hot buttery mess."
Before the strike, a majority of aldermen also signed a letter urging Lewis to keep students in the classroom during negotiations. Many of those same aldermen are now calling for hearings on closings.
Whether the resolution results in hearings remains to be seen. It would be heard before the Education Committee, chaired by Ald. Latasha Thomas, 17th, who did not sign the resolution.
Tribune reporter John Byrne contributed.
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