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Lawmakers delay Chicago school closings issue

SPRINGFIELD – A chief sponsor of a bill that would have stopped Chicago Public Schools from closing any schools until at least 2015 set the proposal aside Tuesday, saying he needs to drum up more support and watch how officials in the nation's third largest school district proceed with the controversial plans.

Chicago Public Schools officials have identified 129 potential schools to close, saying many facilities have too few students to justify keeping them open. District officials say closures would cut costs for the district that faces a $1 billion budget shortfall and better funnel resources to students.

But the issue has been highly contentious for months with charged community meetings all over the city. Opponents say closures would disproportionately affect minority students, threaten the safety of students who may have to cross gang boundaries if their schools are closed and cause major inconveniences for families.

State Sen. William Delgado, a Chicago Democrat, proposed a roughly two-year moratorium – until the end of the 2014-2015 school year – to allow the district to have more time to address those issues. But he said Tuesday that he didn't have enough votes on the Education Committee, which includes Sen. Iris Martinez, a Chicago Democrat who was appointed by Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett for a school closings commission.

Committee members heard roughly two hours of testimony in support of a moratorium from community groups, union members, parents and several Chicago aldermen. Some said the closings would cause truancy to surge and unfairly impact homeless students because it would disrupt their only stability.

In the end, senators on the committee only voted to strip the bill of its language so Delgado can discuss details with city and school officials and see how they proceed. Lawmakers also faced a deadline this week of getting bills out of committee and the unusual move would allow lawmakers to come back to it later.

"This is a victory because the bill stayed alive," Delgado told reporters after the hearing. "If it had stayed in committee, it was over for the communities that have an option to address CPS and make them accountable."

The district has to publicly release a list of schools it will close by March 31, but they won't be shuttered immediately. There'll be more public hearings. Byrd-Bennett has said that the district can't afford to wait on closures and that resources are stretched too thin in the district as it is.

The Chicago Teachers Union opposes the closures and has also criticized the district for lack of a concrete plan and not being forthcoming with details. School officials at Tuesday's committee hearing dismissed those claims, citing the numerous community meetings.

Roughly 400,000 students are enrolled in Chicago schools.

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