Emanuel speaks after historic decision to close 50 CPS schools - FOX 29 News Philadelphia | WTXF-TV

Emanuel speaks after historic decision to close 50 CPS schools

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

The new normal began Thursday for Chicago Public Schools following a fiery and painful public debate over school closings. But the community was still reeling after the decision was announced on Wednesday.

In the end, the Chicago Board of Education needed just minutes Wednesday to approve the closing of 48 elementary schools and one high school program this summer, and another school next year.

SEE: Board votes to close 49 CPS schools, 1 high school program

School board members said they understood people's pain, but had little choice in the face of a projected $1 billion dollar budget gap.

The unprecedented action will be the single largest closure in the history of the United States.

Mayor Emanuel spoke out for the first time since Chicago's historic school vote on Thursday, in a one-on-one interview with FOX 32 Political Editor Mike Flannery.

After staying away from cameras on Wednesday, the mayor weighed in on the pain caused by the closings, as well as the promise he's made to transform Chicago Public Schools.

"Yes, it's very tough. There's no way to get around that," Emanuel said. "On the other hand, the opportunity of giving every child a high-quality education, something we were never set up to do."

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett joined him for the interview at Brenneman Elementary, a so-called welcoming school on the North Side that will receive 280 students from Stewart Elementary.

Six years ago, only 29% of the children at Brenneman were performing at or above grade level. As of Thursday, 73% are now performing at or above grade level. Emanuel called the increase a model for the success he hopes will take place city-wide with the coming transformations.

"Next year, for the first time ever, Chicago will have a full school day for kindergarten, recognizing that school starts in kindergarten, not first grade," Emanuel said. "Everybody's a partner in making that happen."

In response to some protesters' Wednesday charges that if something tragic should happen to children at any of these schools - particularly those in very rough neighborhoods - it would be on the mayor and Byrd-Bennett's heads, Emanuel said that the safety of school children is already his responsibility.

Rousemary Vega, a Lafayette School parent, made an emotional public statement at the school board meeting preceding the final vote. Her words were directed at Byrd-Bennett.

"When you say you're a grandmother, we think of you as a loving person," Vega said. "Yet your hatred actions speak louder than words."

"I don't take the personal attacks or offense personally," Byrd-Bennett told FOX 32 on Thursday. "I know that this is the right decision. It is not about politics. It's not about being popular. It's not about something sexy or provocative."

A Morgan parent had to be pulled away from the podium after attempting to speak without registering to do so. He stepped up to the microphone after a Chicago Teachers Union member stepped aside and gave him the rest of his allotted two minutes. Impassioned public comment went on for hours, since more than the 60 scheduled speakers took a stand in the meeting.

The board did what we reported on FOX 32 News Tuesday night - they spared four schools.

The Chicago Public Schools CEO made her recommendations to do so at Wednesday's school board meeting. Mahalia Jackson, George Manierre, Marcus Garvey and Leif Erickson elementary schools will remain open.

Byrd-Bennett spoke on Good Day Chicago Thursday morning, reiterating her words to the school board and the meeting's audience of protesters. She said the purpose of the closing plan is to level the field for students' education by reallocating resources and giving them a more equal chance at a bright future.

"We need to step back, lock arms and move forward together," Byrd Bennett said.

She did impress the notion that the group that made the decision on which schools to close did, as much as they could, listen to what the public had to say. She said they could not make everyone happy. But in paring the list down from more than 200 schools to just over 50, they hope parents and teachers know that they heard what they had to say.

Byrd-Bennett commented on the distinct, overwhelming amount of voices the district heard in hearings leading up to the final vote. She said the district has not communicated with the CPS community in this way in the past, and that the only way to move forward and effect change successfully for the kids is to keep that line of communication open.

"We need to continue to engage every level of the community," the CEO said.

Chicago Teachers Union Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle strongly disagreed on Good Day Thursday with Byrd-Bennett's statement that the status quo is not good enough for Chicago's children and that the community and district need to take on this major change by moving forward together.

"Closing schools is the status quo. We have been doing this for over ten years," Mayle said. "They have the status quo. We're working in our schools, our schools are improving. This is not the way to do it."

Mayle said the fight is not over. The union plans to regroup, meet with parents and figure out how "they want to proceed." She reminded the public that legislation regarding the education fund is pending in Springfield and that parents filed two federal lawsuits, hoping for an injunction. Mayle believes there is hope for the lawsuit regarding special education students.

"Kids are being transitioned way too quickly," Mayle said. "They are not taking the time they need to make the proper preparations for the students. I think it's a violation of the American Disabilities Act."

Mayle said she didn't see a single parent at Wednesday's school board meeting that was in favor of the 50 closures, and that there are local political leaders that can help those who oppose the closing action. She also said that the union and their supporters are not closed to repairing their relationship with the district in the future.

"I don't think it's impossible. We're looking out for the best interests of kids. They say they are. I believe they think they are," Mayle said. "We have a meeting scheduled to talk about some of the transition stuff today. We're going to try our best."

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