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Illinois judge rules Chicago can close schools

Demonstrators hold placards during a Chicago Teachers Union protest in Chicago March 27, 2013. REUTERS/John Gress
Demonstrators hold placards during a Chicago Teachers Union protest in Chicago March 27, 2013. REUTERS/John Gress

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - An Illinois judge on Wednesday allowed Chicago to proceed with the closing of 50 public schools by denying a request from the teachers' union to keep 10 of them open.

A lawsuit filed by the Chicago Teachers' Union argued that the school district ignored the recommendations of independent officials questioning 10 of the proposed closings.

"This unfortunate ruling ... does an injustice to the parents of these students," Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said in a statement.

Parents backed by the union have other litigation objecting to the closings pending in federal court. Attorneys for the union and parents are considering an appeal in the state case, according to attorney Josiah Groff.

The Chicago Board of Education voted last May to close 50 schools, including about 10 percent of all elementary schools, in the largest mass school closing in the nation.

The closings in mainly Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods have drawn protests by parents and union leaders, who say they will expose children to greater gang violence in a city that recorded 506 murders in 2012.

Officials at the nation's third-largest school district have defended the proposed closings, saying they are necessary to help the district reduce the budget deficit and better distribute resources.

"Though this process has not been without its pain, we stand committed to working with parents, educators and the community to ensure every child can live up to their potential," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CPS CEO, in a statement.

Urban school districts have been grappling with declining enrollment across the country, and 70 cities have closed schools over the past decade.

Chicago's public schools last week forecast a record $1 billion fiscal 2014 budget deficit, despite the closings and the layoffs of 1,000 teachers, prompting one credit agency to downgrade the school system's debt rating.

The district blamed the deficit on an expected sharp rise in annual pension payments for teachers because the state of Illinois has failed to curb ballooning pension costs.

(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune, Gary Hill)

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