School protests hijack Chicago mayor's budget forum

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks to the media after a campaign stop on election day in Chicago, Illinois, February 24, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Fiona Ortiz CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel held a rare public forum on Monday, seeking support for painful belt tightening to solve the city's fiscal crisis, at a meeting dominated by protests over the closing of a high school in an African-American neighborhood. Chants and boos greeted Emanuel, who was forced to agree to meet for the first time with 12 protesters who are in the 15th day of a hunger strike to pressure the city to reopen shuttered Dyett High School in South Chicago. "Hunger strike," "Rahm don't care," and "die for Dyett," chanted the crowd. The school board says it has closed Dyett and 50 other schools in minority neighborhoods due to a shrinking population, but many people in Chicago see school closures as part of a plan to privatize education. City officials are weighing the city's first-ever garbage collection fees, higher property taxes and fees related to e-cigarettes to try to plug an estimated $750 million shortfall in next year's budget for the country's third-largest city. "We're looking to you, the residents, to help us face these challenges," Chief Financial Officer Carole Brown said after a brief presentation on planning for the budget that will take effect on Jan. 1. Several hundred people attended the forum at Malcolm X College, and many signed up for a one-minute opportunity to address the Democratic mayor and his finance team. Rahm engaged with a number of speakers, who suggested everything from an end to spending on downtown development projects to turning off street lights in daylight hours to taxes on alcohol. But most of the speakers pressured him over Dyett at the fractious meeting, which was streamed live over the Internet and will be followed by two more forums this week. Emanuel, a former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, had not held a public budget meeting since 2011, his first year in office. He was re-elected to a second term earlier this year on promises to connect more with the city's poor. Chronic structural budget deficits and a $20 billion unfunded pension liability have led to a slew of credit rating downgrades for Chicago, meaning the city has to pay steep rates to raise funds. Emanuel has pushed for pension payment relief from the state of Illinois to help the city, but those requests have become entangled in an impasse over the state's own budget. (Reporting by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Dan Grebler and Eric Beech)