By Renita D. Young
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago police arrested about two dozen people on Monday who were protesting against the planned closure of 54 schools in the country's third-largest school district, ahead of a planned Wednesday vote on the matter.
The protests at City Hall were the culmination of three days of marches and protests against the closures, which if approved by the Chicago Board of Education could be the largest mass closing in the nation.
Protesters were blocking elevators at City Hall in the main floor lobby before they were led away by police. They were cited for trespassing, according to Chicago Police Officer Joshua Purkiss.
A police officer on the scene said 25 people were arrested, but a Chicago Teachers' Union statement gave the number as 23. Among those arrested were union officer Kristine Mayle and a number of teachers, parents and community activists, the union said.
If the Board approves, the district plans to close 53 elementary schools and one high school, primarily in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods. Chicago Teachers Union leaders and parents at affected schools have said the closings will disrupt communities and put children in danger with longer walks through troubled areas.
"Despite the testimony of thousands of parents, teachers and people who work and live in the school communities impacted, Rahm Emanuel is dedicated to entering the history books as having destroyed the most public schools in one year than anyone," union president Karen Lewis said in a statement, referring to the city's mayor.
The Chicago public school district is under mayoral control. The mayor picks the school district's chief executive officer and the school board.
The teachers' union, which has clashed with Emanuel over school issues and held a seven-day strike last fall for better pay and conditions, filed federal lawsuits last week to stop the closings.
Chicago public school officials have defended the proposed closings, saying they are necessary to shutter underused schools to help the district reduce a $1 billion budget deficit. The school system has promised that displaced students will be sent to better-performing schools with amenities like air conditioning, libraries and upgraded facilities.
The closings will result in the shutdown of 61 district buildings, which account for about 10 percent of elementary school facilities, according to the school district.
Urban school districts around the country have been grappling with the issue of declining enrollment.
Over the past decade, 70 large or mid-sized cities have closed schools, averaging 11 per district, according to the National Education Association, a labor union for teachers. This includes Washington, D.C., which closed 23 schools in 2008 and plans to close 15 more over the next two years.
Fueling union anger over school closings in Chicago is the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded, but are mostly non-union. The number of charter schools has risen even as neighborhood public schools are closed.
(Reporting by Renita D. Young and Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bob Burgdorfer)