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Illinois House votes to give Chicago more time on school closings

By Renita D. Young

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (Reuters) - The Illinois House voted by a wide margin on Wednesday to give the Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest district, four more months to announce what could be dozens of school closings.

The state Senate, which also needs to approve the measure, will vote Thursday, an aide to Senate President John Cullerton said.

The district, which was hit with a strike by public school teachers in September, forecasts a $1 billion deficit next year and is widely expected to try to balance its budget in part by closing public schools.

School officials say they want the additional time to consult with the community over how best to close schools. The district has offered to enact a five-year moratorium on school closings after fall 2013 if it receives the deadline extension. School officials had been required by law to announce planned closings by December 1.

The Illinois House voted 84-28 for the extension, backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. A version of the bill also has been passed by the state Senate, but both chambers must agree on the same legislation and Governor Pat Quinn must sign it before week's end, or the deadline stays the same.

In praising the House's action, Emanuel said in a statement, "Our city has more school buildings, classrooms and desks than it has students and it is essential that we take time to create a sensible plan that invests our resources most effectively so that every child in every school gets a high-quality education."

The Chicago Teachers Union has objected to the extension and wants a moratorium on school closings to start immediately. The union said the district is approving new, mostly nonunion charter schools as it plans to close neighborhood schools, primarily in minority communities.

The district's enrollment has fallen nearly 20 percent in the last decade, mainly because of population declines in poor neighborhoods. The district said it can accommodate 500,000 students, but only about 400,000 are enrolled.

About 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.

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

The first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years drew national attention to the city's dispute over education reforms such as teacher evaluations. The teachers were given a pay raise as part of the strike settlement.

Chicago teachers and some parents have complained that the school district has ignored their concerns over closings.

(Reporting by Renita D. Young; editing by Mary Wisniewski and Cynthia Osterman)

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