By Renita Young and James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Thousands of demonstrators rallied in downtown Chicago on Wednesday to protest the city's plan to close 54 public schools, primarily in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods.
The closings, which the school board plans to vote on in May, would be the biggest one-time shutdown ever by a U.S. city. Wednesday's demonstration, organized by the teacher's union, drew parents, students and other critics of the plan.
Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, encouraged parents of the roughly 30,000 children whose schools will be closed later in 2013 to simply ignore the city's action at the end of summer vacation.
"On the first day of school, you show up at your real school," Lewis said at the rally in Daley Plaza.
The public school district, the third largest in the United States, has said it has a $1 billion annual deficit and needs to close under-used schools to save money. It believes the plan will save $560 million over the next decade.
After the rally at Daley Plaza on Wednesday, the demonstrators marched toward district headquarters. About 100 of them were handcuffed and removed by police after they locked arms and sat down in the street, chanting "Protect our children, save our schools."
Earlier Wednesday, a group of ministers from Chicago's South and West Sides opposed to the closings attempted to deliver a letter to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at City Hall.
Emanuel, who supports the closings, did not meet with the group, which left their letter with a police officer.
"I think their No. 1 responsibility is a high quality education for every child and this plan simply does not deliver that," said Reverend Marshall Hatch of the New Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church. "It seems to, of course, be more about the budget."
Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has fallen 20 percent in the last decade, mainly because of population declines in poor neighborhoods.
The district has said it can accommodate 511,000 students, but only about 403,000 are enrolled and nearly 140 of its school buildings are more than half empty. The school board must approve the plan and is expected to vote on it May 22.
The closings are "not easy for our communities," CPS head Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. "But as CEO of this district, I need to make decisions that put our children first."
She said children at the under-used schools have been "cheated of the resources they need to succeed" for too long.
The decision to close dozens of schools follows a bitter strike by Chicago teachers last September, fought partly over the teachers union's accusation that Mayor Emanuel was undermining schools in poor areas of the city.
Chicago's is just one of many urban school districts around the United States grappling with declining enrollment.
Over the past decade, 70 large or mid-sized cities have closed schools, averaging 11 per district, according to the National Education Association, a labor union for teachers.
In Washington D.C., 23 schools were closed in 2008 and 15 more are expected to close over the next two years. Earlier in March, Philadelphia announced plans to close 23 schools.
An expansion of charter schools is at the heart of the school closings debate in Chicago. Charter schools are publicly funded, but mostly non-union and their numbers have increased even as neighborhood public schools are closed.
Chicago has promised a five-year moratorium on school closings after the planned shutdowns this year.
Many of the schools that would be closed are in neighborhoods that have seen frequent gun violence, leaving parents and school activists concerned the changes will endanger students who will have to cross gang boundaries.
Chicago recorded 506 murders in 2012 largely due to gang violence and nearly all of the children affected by the closings are in kindergarten through eighth grade.
(Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by David Bailey and Andre Grenon)