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Protestors call on legislators to halt school closings, target Black Caucus members

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2013-05-22_11-23-05_238.jpgTara Stamps, 44, speaks at the Capitol to protestors calling for a moratorium on Chicago's school closings. Stamps teaches at Edward Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts on the near North Side and is a member of the Chicago Teachers Union. (Zach Buchheit/Sun-Times Media)

SPRINGFIELD-Activists protesting Chicago school closings swarmed the Capitol Wednesday in a rally that included sit-ins in front of the House chamber to demand a moratorium on the closings, hoping to save the 50 schools still set to get the axe before the Legislature adjourns at month's end.

The message to lawmakers shouted by the roughly 200 demonstrators under the Capitol rotunda was fairly simple: If you don't represent our interests, then you need to leave.

"What I'm saying right now is if you don't do what you need to do today, you will not have the opportunity to do it again," cried Tara Stamps, West Side resident and Chicago Teachers Union member. "There is no way my people will re-elect you to come back to Springfield to sell us out."

The groups at the rally - Action Now, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Grassroots Education Movement and CTU - are targeting two moratorium bills sitting in the Legislature.

One bill has passed committee and moved to the Senate floor, while the other has sat since February in the House Rules Committee, often called the place legislation goes to die until House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) releases it.

"We want Michael Madigan to call the bill. Period," said Rev. Krista Alston of Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church in Kenwood. "Because we feel that to try to hold it in committee is stalling, and while you're stalling our children are being harmed."

Efforts seemed to be focused on House legislation, which has 32 members' names tacked to it. Protestors conducted a sit-in at the entry to the House chamber, and eight of them were escorted away by police.

But Madigan doesn't support the measure in the House, where "there's not support for moving the bill," Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said.

"I don't think [Madigan] thinks the state has a role in how school districts operate in that regard," Brown said.

The House plan would simply halt school closings before the end of the 2014-2015 school year, while the Senate bill would ban any school closings before June 30, 2014 and require the Chicago Board of Education to adopt a 10-year master plan by October 1, 2013.

Alston's 12-year old son, Gavin, also spoke at the rally. His mother has homeschooled him since the school he attended, Price Elementary School on the South Side, closed last year.

"Everything should be better than this," Gavin Alston said. "We are not happy to be moved from place to place. We are human beings, and we deserve to be treated as such."

Protestors specifically set their sights on the Legislature's Black Caucus because they said 77 percent of black voters disapprove of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plans to close schools.

"Today, this is an indictment against black leadership, who gave us their word that we can send them to Springfield to protect the interests of black people," Stamps shouted before the crowd gathered around an Abraham Lincoln statue. "And as of right now, in this hour, they have failed."

Alston acknowledged she is "standing strong with the Black Caucus," but Stamps asserted the responsibility to pass a bill "falls squarely on the shoulders of the Black caucus."

"Their inability to corral their voting bloc to get these bills passed represents to the intelligent, black voting community that you are passed the point of relevance, and we are going to actively and aggressively seek to remove you," Stamps said.

Stamps teaches at Edward Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts on the near North Side, a school that was once on Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett's list of recommended closings.

The school was set to take on students from George Manierre Elementary School, Stamps said, until Byrd-Bennett announced Wednesday that Manierre along with three other schools had been removed from her list.

Even after the schools were spared, the school board voted almost unanimously Wednesday to close the other 50. For the protestors who traveled to Springfield, the decision doesn't add up.

"We know that if they can take four schools off the list, they can take all of them off the list because when I think about it, it's like 'what's the difference?' Alston said. "What made you decide to take these four off? What is the criteria? There's too many inconsistencies, even from the beginning."

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