By Mary Wisniewski and Renita D. Young
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Three months after Chicago Public Schools' controversial decision to close 50 schools, the new term will begin with cutbacks in staff and more children in fewer classrooms as the nation's third-largest school system makes do with fewer buildings.
More than 30,000 children on Monday will be directly or indirectly affected by the public school closures - either because they have to go to a new school or because their school is absorbing students from a shuttered building.
The system eliminated 1,581 teaching positions and 1,587 non-teaching positions this summer, but has hired back 1,000 teachers for the school year.
Chicago Public Schools officials have said the cuts to staff and the largest mass school closings in the nation were necessary to help stem a mounting deficit forecast at a record $1 billion in 2014. About a third of the teacher cuts were from closing schools.
The closings have affected mainly Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods. Parents and union leaders have protested, saying more children will have to cross gang territorial lines, leaving them potentially exposed to violence in a city that recorded 506 homicides in 2012.
Chicago Public Schools have hired 1,200 "safe passage" workers to staff school routes to make sure children arrive safely. This summer, there have been three reported homicides along or near those safe-school routes.
In remarks to reporters Monday morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke of the improvements to the system, including a full day for all kindergarten students.
"Obviously, kids are excited, like any child, upset about the summer being ended, but enthusiastic about the beginning of a new school year," Emanuel said.
Yellow signs mark safe passage routes, but some parents interviewed while walking their children to John B. Drake Elementary School on Monday said they saw signs but not enough workers. Drake's building has been closed and the school now shares a building with another school.
"I don't see that many safe passage people out here at all. I feel like it's a joke," said Rubin Livingston, 28, who said he will walk his son to school himself to ensure his safety. The "safe passage" route to Drake saw a homicide over the summer.
Drake students danced their way into the first day of classes Monday, with a DJ blasting music over a sound system and saying "Welcome back to school, children."
Quaneta Gates, 40, who has a child at Drake, welcomed the new year and said she is positive the transition will work out. Asked if she had concerns about her child's school being housed in a building with children from another school, she said "Life is about new experiences and you're supposed to meet new people."
But Gates said she was disappointed she did not see more safe passage workers on nearby streets.
Union leaders contend the safe passage program is soaking up money that could be spent on social workers, counselors and nurses at schools.
"They've created a problem of student safety and are investing almost exclusively in security at the expense of programs and staff to help students who are facing all sorts of issues," said Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union.
The district said that salary increases negotiated last September to settle a strike with the teachers' union contributed to the budget deficit.
Chicago Public Schools serve 403,000 students in 681 schools. But enrollment has been falling for years, in part because people have been moving out of the city with most leaving poor neighborhoods.
Urban school districts have been grappling with declining enrollment across the country, and 70 cities have closed schools over the past decade.
(Editing by Daniel Trotta, Maureen Bavdek and Jim Marshall)