Teachers, Supporters Converge Downtown to Protest School Closures

127 demonstrators cited but no physical arrests, police say

Still in shock over a proposal to shutter 54 public schools, hundreds of teachers and their supporters gathered in Chicago's Loop on Wednesday in a massive, hours-long protest that included more than 100 citations being issued but no physical arrests.

Teachers, support staff and custodians -- many grouped with the schools they represent -- descended upon Daley Plaza at 4 p.m. for a rally. From there, the sonorous crowd -- with chants of "save our schools," with drums banging and with signs criticizing the mayor and his administration -- snaked its way south on LaSalle Street toward Chicago Public Schools headquarters, at 125 S. Clark St.

"People are very upset about this as if their voices are never heard," said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. "This is another reason why we need an elected, representative school board. We need to wrest mayoral control. It is a mess. It has caused this."

As the crowd passed Chicago City Hall, at 121 S. LaSalle St., about 150 demonstrators sat down in the street as part of a planned act of civil disobedience.

"It's time to stop these school closings and start to invest in the communities so we can really rebuild Chicago," said one protester, unconcerned with the citation an officer was about to give him.

"It's not the first time and it won't be the last," he said of the ticket. "Many times I've sat in for social and economic justice, and I'm proud to be here today."

"I'm fighting for our children and for my children and for my job," said one Brownsville Scholastic Academy High School cafeteria worker as she sat with her arms entwined with others.

A police official later said 127 people who refused to disperse were issued tickets. There were no physical arrests, department spokesman Adam Collins said.

City officials estimated the crowd to be in the range of 700 to 900 people, but a labor official said the crowd was close to 5,000 people and later swelled to 7,000.

Lewis said she was pleased with the turnout and demonstration. Shortly after 6 p.m., and from the back of a red pickup truck, she instructed the protesters to quietly disperse and enjoy the rest of the holy week but reminded them that the fight to protect schools was "not over."

But as he'd done in day's past, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said closing the more than four dozen schools -- the largest school consolidation in the nation's history -- was the best way to improve education in the country's third-largest school district.

"Every child will go to a school with a library, air conditioning, new technology and better quality is achieved and the safety is there for them," Emanuel said at an event earlier in the day at the Chicago Cultural Center.

He and schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett say the district must take action because CPS faces a $1 billion budget shortfall and has too many schools that are half-empty and failing academically.

"Keeping open a school that is falling short year-in and year-out means we haven't done what we are responsible for; not what our parents did for us and what we owe every child in the city of Chicago," the mayor said.

Critics say the closings disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods and will uproot kids who need a stable and familiar environment in which to learn. They also worry that students will have to cross gang lines to get to a new school, and that the vacated buildings will be blight on already struggling communities.

Byrd-Bennett has said care has been taken to ensure the safety of the nearly 30,000 students who would be affected.

"I want to ensure that every single child will be safe," she said. "We've increased the opportunity for our Safe Passage program. We are working very directly with CPD to ensure that police presence is there in the morning and the evenings when our children are coming to and from school."

Jadine Chou, the Chief Safety and Security Officer for CPS, said the Safe Passage program is already successful in 35 high schools and four elementary schools.

Pastor Gregory Livingston of Mission of Faith Baptist Church said the program is needed and then some.

"They have no idea what it means to be in these neighborhoods and to cross gang territories and things of that nature," he said, "because they've never lived that life before and have no way of understanding what's its like for the children."

Byrd-Bennett has said the district has about 100,000 more seats than students at a time the district is facing a $1 billion deficit. Each closed school, she's said, would ultimately save the district between $500,000 and $800,000, saving the district $560 million over 10 years in capital costs and an additional $43 million per year in operating costs.

Union officials openly question those figures, saying the formulas have been manipulated and that the planned school closures are just a path to privatization and charter schools.

The Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote on the proposed closures on May 22. If approved, the closings would take effect at the start of the 2013-2014 school year.

Wednesday's rally and march wasn't the first time Chicago teachers and union members marched downtown to make their point. Last year, thousands packed Daley Plaza during the teacher's strike, halting traffic in some areas as they marched in red T-shirts to Michigan and Congress in support of a fair contract.

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NBC Chicago's Lauren Petty, Michelle Relerford, Lisa Balde, Kim Vatis, Christian Farr, Courtney Copenhagen, Mary Ann Ahern, Natalie Martinez and BJ Lutz contributed to this report.

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