Teachers’ union hits Chicago’s school board with two suits opposing proposed school closings

The Chicago Tribune reports the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has filed two lawsuits, on behalf of parents and their special needs children, to try to stop the city from closing 53 elementary schools.  The suits claim the proposed school closings are unfair, will harm students with disabilities and are discriminatory because almost all the students affected are African-American. One lawsuit asks for a delay of at least a year before any schools are closed; the other asks for a permanent injunction on closings.  The Board of Education is expected to vote on the school closings proposal on May 22, 2013.

A CTU-backed lawsuit last year sought to block closings on behalf of local school council members, alleging that closings disproportionately affected African-Americans.  That case was tossed out by a Cook County Court judge, but is still under appeal.

The lawsuits question the economic impact of school closings, which the district says are necessary to address underused buildings and save money. “If the board and (schools chief) Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the mayor of the city of Chicago want to save costs, they ought to find another way of doing so than singling out African-American children over and over,” said Tom Geoghegan, lead attorney in the suits.

One lawsuit alleges that the district is violating Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act in its plan to close schools because it “does not permit a timely and orderly process” for review and revision of individualized education programs, or IEPs, for children with special needs.  The other lawsuit, seeking a permanent injunction, says the district’s plan will destabilize thousands of children in special education programs.  It also claims racial discrimination, both in the current plan and in past school closings.

“For the 72 schools that defendants have closed to date, African-American children make up more than 90 percent of the displaced children; and in currently proposed closings, they make up more than 80 percent of the displaced children,” the suit says.  “Yet African-American children constitute only 42 percent of the children in public schools.”

The school system, which has been expecting a lawsuit for months, did not respond to the legal arguments in the case.  Instead, a statement was released from Byrd-Bennett, who said: “These lawsuits demonstrate that union leadership is committed to a status quo that is failing too many of our kids.  Thousands of children in underutilized schools are being cheated out of the resources they need to succeed.”

The filings come a week after the release of reports by retired judges serving as hearing officers, which were critical of many of the proposed closings and opposed 13 of them.  One of the hearing officers, retired federal judge David Coar, was critical of the closing of Mahalia Jackson Elementary, which serves a large population of deaf students.  Coar’s report, which noted the lack of a safety plan for the school’s students in moving to a new school, was cited in the lawsuits.

Geoghegan said Coar’s opinion “ought to be given great weight” and he hoped  filings wound lead board members “to read these two complaints before they vote on the closings.”

Source: Chicago Tribune, 5/15/13, By Noreen Ahmed-Ullah

[Editor's Note: In January 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article on globalpost.com reporting CTU sued the Chicago school district, saying the city’s campaign to reform or close under-performing public schools discriminates against black teachers.]

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