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CPS School Closing Deadline Extension Approved In Illinois House Vote

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* House votes to give Chicago schools four-month extension

* Dozens of Chicago school closings possible in 2013

* Schools to use additional time to consult with community

By Renita D. Young

SPRINGFIELD, Ill., Nov 28 (Reuters) - The Illinois House voted by a wide margin on Wednesday to allow the Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest district, to extend by four months a deadline to announce what could be dozens of school closings.

The district, which was hit with a strike by public school teachers in September, forecasts a $1 billion deficit next year and is widely expected to try to balance its budget in part by closing public schools.

School officials say they want the additional time to consult with the community over how best to close schools. The district has offered to enact a five-year moratorium on school closings after fall 2013 if it receives the deadline extension. School officials had been required by law to announce planned closings by Dec. 1.

The Illinois House voted 84-28 for the extension, backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. A version of the bill also has been passed by the state Senate, but both chambers must agree on the same legislation and Governor Pat Quinn must sign it before week's end, or the deadline stays the same.

"What this act does is allow time for that engagement in the community, time to develop a long-range plan of how they're going to deal with structure ... and what is needed by student population," said state Representative Robert Pritchard, a Republican who supported the bill.

The Chicago Teachers Union has objected to the extension and wants a moratorium on school closings to start immediately. The union said the district is approving new, mostly nonunion charter schools as it plans to close neighborhood schools, primarily in minority communities.

The district's enrollment has fallen nearly 20 percent in the last decade, mainly because of population declines in poor neighborhoods. The district said it can accommodate 500,000 students, but only about 400,000 are enrolled.

About 140 schools are half-empty, according to the district. The union said 86 Chicago public schools have closed in the past decade, but the district could not confirm that number.

Urban school districts around the country are grappling with the issue of declining enrollment, including in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., according to a study last year on school closings by the Pew Charitable Trust.

The first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years drew national attention to the city's dispute over education reforms such as teacher evaluations. The teachers were given a pay raise as part of the strike settlement.

Chicago teachers and some parents have complained that the school district has ignored their concerns over closings. (Reporting by Renita D. Young; editing by Mary Wisniewski and Matthew Lewis)

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