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Chicago closing 54 schools in face of $1 billion deficit

Crushed by a $1 billion education budget deficit, Chicago is closing 54 public schools, school district officials announced Thursday.

The official list of closings isn't due to be published until March 31, but parents were learning whether their schools were on the list in letters that were already being sent home with students.

The school district's chief executive, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, said the district is 20 percent under capacity — almost 100,000 students —  leaving many schools half-empty. The district will save $500 million to $800 million for each school that is closed, she has said in community forums and news interviews leading up to Thursday's announcement.

"We've got at least two decades of decay, of children not being able to receive the kind of education that they should," Byrd-Bennett told NBC 5 of Chicago.

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which has been protesting the coming cuts for weeks, said the closings would mean "utter chaos."

"This city cannot destroy that many schools," Lewis said in a statement. "These actions will put our students' safety and academics at risk and will further destabilize our neighborhoods."

Lewis blamed Mayor Rahm Emanuel for the schools' disarray, calling him "the murder mayor."

"He is murdering public services (and) murdering our ability to maintain public sector jobs, and now he has set his sights on our public schools," she said.

"But we have news for him: We don't intend to die. This is not Detroit."

The union has scheduled a citywide save-the-schools rally for Wednesday.

Emanuel said in a statement that Chicago couldn't afford to put off difficult decisions any longer.

"By consolidating these schools, CPS can focus on safely getting every child into a better performing school. Like school systems in New York and Philadelphia where schools are being closed, Chicago must make tough choices," he said. "Our children's futures are bright and consolidating schools is the best way to make sure all of our city's students get the resources they need to learn and succeed."

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