Ministers push skipping 1st day of school in protest

CHICAGO Reverend James Meeks is organizing the school funding protest.

Reverend Meeks is also asking parents to enroll their children in wealthier, white, suburban schools. Chicago Public Schools spends about $10,000 a year on each student. While some suburbs spend almost $20,000 per pupil.

While most Chicago public school students have the summer off, some local ministers are already planning for the first day of school. The plan they propose is to skip the first day to enroll in a wealthier school district.

"We might as well go to another part of the state where funding is not a problem. We can no longer stand idly by and watch our children suffer," Meeks said.

The ministers - led by Meeks, a state senator, - are organizing Chicago public school students to go elsewhere for their educations in light of what they say is one of the largest funding disparities between affluent and urban school districts in the United States.

"It appears that in many of our communities, we have been orphaned by those folks who control the purse strings. Because of that control of the purse strings, our children are not able to receive the kind of funding that is necessary for preparing them for the future," said Rev. Albert D. Tyson III, St. Stephen A.M.E. Church.

"So when they go away to college, and now these kids from the wealthy districts and the kids from the inner city poor districts are under the same roof, they can't compete any longer," said Rev. Ira Acree, Greater St. John Bible Church.

The ministers say they'll bring students to suburban New Trier High School to enroll nd Sunset Ridge Elementary.

The superintendent of Sunset Ridge School District 29 says she shares concern about the funding gap but says state school code restricts their enrollment to residents, soon-to-be residents or only non-residents of an adjoining district in case of a health or safety emergency.

"How this issue is resolved really needs to remain in the hands of our legislators," said Dr. Linda Vieth, Sunset Ridge School District 29.

Back in Chicago, CPS' board president is concerned about the funding gap and how missing the first day of school may negatively impact funding for the year.

"Our money is dependent on average attendance. The first day of school is very important because that is the day we have the highest attendance and really pull out the stops to get children in school, that's the day we do it," said Rufus Williams, CPS board president.

The ministers say they will offer buses to take students to the suburbs. They say they'll firm up details of their plan in the coming weeks.

State Senator Jeff Schoenberg, whose district includes New Trier High School says the problem is that education funding relies too heavily on property taxes, and wealthy areas pay more in property taxes. But skipping school only worsens the problem.

"Having fewer children enrolled in the first day of school could actually create an even greater difficulty, because it could deny millions of dollars to a school district," Schoenberg said.

Schoenberg vows to continue to work in Springfield to correct the disparity.

New Trier High School often ranks among the best schools in the country. It is also among the best funded. That's because the tree-lined streets of Winnetka hide some pricey real estate. And real estate taxes provide the bulk of the school district budget.

"We have no other alternatives now than to take to the streets to mobilize the parents from our congregation and to get the parents involved," Meeks said.

The rules would prevent most from enrolling. But the ministers say they want to send a message to Springfield.

"We need to do more at the state capitol to provide opportunities for children, whether they live in Chicago, suburban communities or downstate Illinois," said Schoenberg.

Williams said he would also like to see better funding for his schools but not by having kids skip classes. It costs $110 a day in state funding for every student that misses class. And the district places extra emphasis on the first day.

"On the first day of school, I want you to be here. We need you here in Chicago Public Schools on the first day. But we recognize the issue that has been talked about, and we support that issue that has been talked about," Williams said.

The superintendent of the New Trier school district says in a statement that she supports a school funding bill proposed by Senator Meeks that would change the school funding formula by lowering property taxes and raising income taxes. But she says the proposed September 2 protest appears to pit one district against another.

Chicago public school officials have postponed the opening of a new elementary school on the city's Southwest Side.

Burroughs Two Elementary was scheduled to open September 2 in a shared space with Pope Elementary at 1852 South Albany. However, officials decided to move the school to a different location due to low enrollment. Fewer than 60 students enrolled. School officials were hoping for 100.

Children who had enrolled will return to their neighborhood schools. The new location for the school has not yet been determined.

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