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Chicago proposes moratorium on school closings after 2013

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Chicago public school district, which is expected to close dozens of schools next year, will impose a five-year moratorium on shuttering public schools after the fall of 2013, the new head of the district said on Monday.

The nation's third-largest school district, which weathered a nasty strike of public school teachers in September, is facing a financial crisis after granting pay rises to teachers in order to settle the strike.

It is widely expected to try to balance its budget by closing public schools because of falling enrollment. The school district said it has room for 500,000 students but has only about 400,000 enrolled.

Urban school districts around the country are grappling with the same issue of closing schools, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C., according to a study last year on school closings by the Pew Charitable Trust.

Feelings are still raw after the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years drew national attention to the city's dispute over education reform. Chicago teachers and some parents complain that the school district has ignored their concerns.

The offer of a five-year moratorium was seen as an attempt by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has championed education reform and has repeatedly clashed with the teachers union, to provide some stability to Chicago schools after closings in the coming year.

"Mayor Emanuel recognizes that for many years CPS (Chicago Public Schools) has made too many piecemeal decisions around school actions, which has caused unnecessary disruptions to students, parents and schools across the city," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was appointed by Emanuel after the strike ended to head the district. Byrd-Bennett spoke to a business group on Monday at the City Club of Chicago.

The district faces a December 1 deadline to issue a proposed list of schools to be closed, although Byrd-Bennett has asked the Illinois legislature for a four-month delay until March 31.

The union has previously said it wants an immediate halt to school closings, and the Chicago Teachers Union was expected to react to the moratorium proposal later on Monday.

The Chicago Tribune has reported that school district officials are considering closing up to 120 schools next year, or about 17 percent of schools. The district has established a commission to study the issue.

Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has fallen nearly 20 percent in the last decade, mainly because of population declines in poor neighborhoods.

Some 140 schools are half-empty, according to the district. The union said 86 Chicago public schools have closed in the past decade, but the district could not confirm that number.

At the heart of the dispute over school closings is the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but mostly nonunionized. The number of charter schools has risen even as neighborhood public schools are closed.

The teachers union has complained that charter schools undermine public education and force more community schools to close. Their academic performance record compared with community schools is mixed, according to national studies.

Chicago now has 103 charter or "contract" schools, some run by philanthropists, which account for 12 percent of students. There are plans by supporters for 60 more charter schools over the next five years, according to the district and the union.

(Editing by Greg McCune and Matthew Lewis)

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