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Union sues Chicago, claims racism behind school closure plans

By Greg McCune

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Chicago Teachers Union sued the nation's third-largest school district on Wednesday, saying a plan to close 54 schools this year discriminates against African-American children and those with disabilities.

Two lawsuits filed in federal District Court on behalf of parents of Chicago students ask a federal court to stop all school closings scheduled to go into effect before the next school year in September.

The court challenge is the latest fight between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the union, which staged a high-profile strike last year that shut down Chicago public schools for a week.

While the strike was settled with a new labor agreement for teachers, it soured relations and the two sides have been sparring ever since.

In March, Chicago announced the largest single mass closing of schools in U.S. history, earmarking 53 elementary schools, one high school and 61 school buildings to shutter. This represents at least 10 percent of all elementary school facilities.

One of the lawsuits accuses the city of violating an Illinois state civil rights law by closing schools in mostly African-American areas.

"The 54 schools selected ... for closing have a combined enrollment of 125 white students out of a total enrollment of 16,059 students - less than 1 percent," the teachers union said in a statement quoting the lawsuit.

It said that 88 percent of children in the schools earmarked for closing are African-American while black children make up 42 percent of the students in Chicago public schools.

The second lawsuit says special education programs for children with disabilities will not be able to adjust quickly enough to cope with the closings.

Union President Karen Lewis, who has been at loggerheads with Emanuel, said: "This city has worked systematically to undermine our public education system and destabilize certain communities."

The school district did not directly respond to the racism charge.

"Instead of offering up solutions, CTU (Chicago Teachers Union) continues to protect a status quo that doesn't put our children first," district spokeswoman Becky Carroll said.

Chicago enrollment has fallen 20 percent in the last decade, mainly because of population declines in poor neighborhoods. The district says that nearly 140 of its schools are more than half empty.

Chicago is one of a number of urban school districts across the country that have closed schools in recent years.

The Chicago school board is scheduled to meet on May 22 to make a final decision on shuttering the 54 schools.

(Reporting By Greg McCune; Editing by Kevin Gray and Cynthia Osterman)

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