By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Chicago Board of Education voted on Wednesday to close 50 schools - including about 10 percent of all elementary schools - in the largest mass school closing in the nation.
The closings in mainly Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods have drawn protests by parents and teachers union leaders who say the closures will expose children to greater gang violence in a city that recorded 506 murders in 2012.
The Chicago Teachers Union, which has clashed with Mayor Rahm Emanuel over other school issues and held a seven-day strike last fall for better pay and conditions, accused the city of racial discrimination in federal lawsuits filed last week.
A raucous meeting, with three hours of emotional speeches from parents, teachers and aldermen, ended in a quick vote approving every recommended closure, which is expected to save the district $867 million over 10 years.
The union blasted Emanuel, who appointed the school board and supports the school closings.
"Closing schools is not an education plan. It is a scorched earth policy," teachers union chief Karen Lewis said.
Officials at the nation's third-largest school district have defended the proposed closings, saying they were necessary to help the district reduce a $1 billion budget deficit and to better distribute resources. The officials have promised displaced students will be sent to better-performing schools with amenities such as air conditioning, libraries and upgraded facilities.
U.S. urban school districts have been grappling with declining enrollment, and 70 cities have closed schools over the past decade, averaging 11 per district, according to the National Education Association, a labor union for school teachers. Washington, D.C., closed 23 schools in 2008 and plans to close 15 more over the next two years.
PROTESTERS REMOVED BY SECURITY
Emanuel acknowledged that the closings were "incredibly difficult."
"More hard work lies ahead, but I am confident that together with teachers and principals, engaged parents and community support, our children will succeed," Emanuel said in a statement.
Board member Andrea Zopp said that she has been moved by the passion of the protests, but the system needed to be fixed. The district says the targeted schools are underutilized, and that the city's number of school-age children has declined by 145,000 in the last decade.
"We have to fix our schools and in order to do that we cannot continue to operate when we have too many schools for the number of students we have," Zopp said. "We have to act. We cannot wait another year."
Some speakers at the meeting wept, one prayed, and a few shouted insults at board members and Chief Executive Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
Several protesters had to be physically removed from the board room by security.
Several speakers urged the school board to wait a year on closings, to better study the repercussions on safety and academics.
"Substantial research shows that closing schools and moving students increases the dropout rate and the incidence of street violence," said Alderman Bob Fioretti.
Fueling union anger over the closings in Chicago is the expansion of publicly funded, but mostly non-union charter schools. The number of charter schools has risen even as neighborhood public schools are closed.
Chicago has promised a five-year moratorium on school closings, following this year.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski and Renita D. Young; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Philip Barbara, Greg McCune, Leslie Gevirtz and Lisa Shumaker)