By James B. Kelleher and Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago will close 54 schools and 61 school buildings by the beginning of the next academic year in the country's third-largest public school district, a move that education experts called the largest mass closing in the nation.
The district will shutter 53 elementary schools and one high school, primarily in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods. The district, which has a $1 billion annual deficit, has said it needs to close underutilized schools to save money.
Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has fallen 20 percent in the last decade, mainly because of population declines in poor neighborhoods. The district said it can accommodate 511,000 students, but only about 403,000 are enrolled. It said that nearly 140 of its schools are more than half empty.
The controversial decision to close dozens of schools follows a bitter strike by Chicago teachers last September, fought partly over the Chicago Teachers Union's accusation that Mayor Rahm Emanuel was undermining community schools in poor areas of the city.
The 61 closings account for about 10 percent of elementary school facilities, according to the school district.
"Consolidating schools is the best way to make sure all of our city's students get the resources they need to succeed in the classroom," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a statement.
The union objects to school closings, saying they destabilize minority neighborhoods and would not save money.
"They keep saying that closing schools is going to save money," said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. "This will not save money. It's going to cost money and it's going to leave abandoned buildings, which is another recipe for disaster."
During a news conference at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, which is marked for closing, Lewis accused Emanuel of being on a ski trip when the announcement was made.
"Mayor Rahm Emanuel should be ashamed of himself. Shanda!" Lewis said, using the Yiddish word for shame or scandal. Both Lewis and Emanuel are Jewish.
The staff of the mayor, whose children attend private school, were not immediately available to comment on his whereabouts.
Several parents don't want to see the schools closed.
"It took three schools to find the right place for my grandchild," said Menjiwei Latham, a grandparent and guardian of a student at the Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, which serves special-needs students.
DECLINING ENROLLMENT IN URBAN SCHOOLS
Urban school districts around the country have been grappling with the issue of declining enrollment, according to a 2011 study on school closings by the Pew Charitable Trust.
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 school teachers.
This includes Washington, D.C., which closed 23 schools in 2008 and plans to close 15 more over the next two years. Philadelphia announced earlier this month that it would close 23 schools.
Education experts contacted by Reuters on Thursday said no other single district has closed as many schools as Chicago would in the announcement.
At the heart of the dispute over school closings in Chicago is the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded, but mostly non-unionized. The number of charter schools has risen even as neighborhood public schools are closed.
The union said 88 percent of students affected by Chicago school closings or other actions in the past decade were African-American and most closed schools have been in poor neighborhoods. The union said 86 Chicago public schools have closed in the past decade. The district has not provided its own number.
Chicago has promised a five-year moratorium on school closings, following this year.
A commission appointed to hold public meetings and hearing community feedback on school closings over recent months recommended that no high schools be closed to avoid making students cross gang boundaries to get to a new school.
Parents and school activists have complained that closing neighborhood schools endanger students because they are exposed to greater gang violence if they cross neighborhood boundaries. Chicago recorded 506 murders due to gang violence in 2012, and its homicide rate continues to draw national attention.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski and James Kelleher in Chicago and Stephanie Simon in Boston; Editing by Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker)