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Article updated: 5/29/2013 4:07 PM

Lawsuit filed to halt Chicago school closures

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By Associated Press

A plan to close 50 schools and programs in Chicago met a new legal challenge Wednesday, with the filing of a lawsuit that claims some of the closure decisions violated a process set out in Illinois law.

The Chicago Teachers Union and parents of public school students filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Cook County circuit court. They claim Illinois law bars the Chicago Board of Education from closing 10 elementary schools it voted to shut last week because independent hearing officers had determined those closures failed to comply with the board's own guidelines.

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The lawsuit seeks a court order to stop the closures, saying "once the schools are closed it is impossible to put back the status quo" and the affected families and teachers "will suffer irreparable harm."

The lawsuit revolves around the written reports, issued in early May, of independent hearing officers. The hearing officers -- all retired judges -- determined the 10 school closure decisions failed to meet board guidelines. They said the decisions either didn't have adequate safety plans, didn't make sure that students would move to higher performing schools or ignored evidence about possible overcrowding.

On Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Becky Carroll issued a statement in response to the lawsuit. She said union leaders are supporting "a status quo that is failing too many children trapped in underutilized, under-resourced schools."

The school board voted last week to shut 50 schools and programs. Many experts say it's the largest number of closings at any one time by any school district in recent memory. Most of the schools are scheduled to close at the end of the current academic year, although one closing was delayed by a year.

City officials say the closings are necessary because of falling school enrollment and as part of their efforts to improve the city's struggling education system. Critics have blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appoints the school board, and schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, saying the closings disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods and will endanger children who may have to cross gang boundaries to get to a new school.

In a separate legal challenge, a federal judge will start hearing evidence July 16 from parents who argue in two lawsuits that black and disabled students are unfairly affected by the closures.

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