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A look at people in the movement to return Gary schools to local control

State Rep. Vernon Smith Gary Indiana

Rep. Vernon Smith says the rumblings and actions in Gary to return the school district to local control is a movement that hasn’t been seen since the community came together to keep a Bureau of Motor Vehicles office in the city. That was 2005 and the state director of the Indiana BMV had proposed closing the Gary License Branch as part of his department’s cost-cutting measures.

Gary residents protested at the state capitol. Rudy Clay, then a Lake County Commissioner, filed a lawsuit against the state. Scott King was the mayor and offered city funds to help keep the office open.

In the end, Gary kept its license branch because the decision was left up to one person – Governor Mitch Daniels.

This time to get what it wants, the Gary community has to go through the state legislature and the Distressed Unit Appeal Board.

The community went through a scare at the start of the 2022 legislative session with HB1187, a bill sponsored by House Republicans. HB1187 would return local control of the Gary school district to a school board controlled by the Indiana Secretary of Education.

The secretary would appoint 4 members, and let the Gary mayor and city council appoint the remaining 3 with the approval of the education secretary. The bill called for the school board to appoint the current emergency manager as superintendent during the first year of local control.

That rang the alarm bell for Democratic legislators representing Gary and galvanized residents to travel to the state house in protest. No reason was given when the bill’s authors pulled the legislation in February.

Local control for the Gary community means a school board elected by Gary residents and a school superintendent appointed by that board.

After HB1187 was pulled, momentum swelled in the community for a cause that had seen mostly talk but little action.

Dr. Michaela Spangenburg
Dr. Michaela Spangenburg

Dr. Michaela Spangenburg, from the Gary Education Coalition, is one of the sparks in the movement. She discounted the ‘mostly talk but little action’ observation. “Talking is when people are developing plans to be put into action. They are providing important feedback and input.”

Even before there was a movement, Dr. Spangenburg was among the first to form carpools encouraging others to join her on downstate trips to DUAB and State Board of Education meetings. “When I show up to DUAB and SBOE meetings, it’s not for me as an individual to express my own viewpoint, but to take everything that members of our community have expressed to me and share those concerns,” she said.

Since the state takeover of the school district in 2017, State Rep. Vernon Smith has been the most vocal among legislators asking for the district’s return to local control.

Smith’s stance comes from his position as a non-voting member on the DUAB, the agency that the state legislature authorized to appoint and oversee an educational management organization to run day-to-day operations in the Gary school district. MGT Consulting of America was selected in 2017 by the DUAB for those operations and just received a 2-year extension.

Part of his duties on the board, Smith said,

“… is to make sure MGT does what they are supposed to do, not what they want to do.”

When the DUAB came to Gary for a meeting at West Side Leadership Academy in May, yard signs around the school reading ‘MGT Must Go’ greeted them. The signs have been posted throughout Gary. Rep. Smith said, “I’m still putting up signs.”

Robert Coleman and his wife Atty. Tracy Coleman have distinct positions on the front to return the district to local control. Their son is a West Side student and they are active in the school’s parent-teacher organization.

Robert Coleman served for a brief period on the Gary School Advisory Board, the body replacing the Gary Board of School Trustees after the takeover. The Advisory Board has no authority in governing the district and only meets 4 times a year.

Atty. Coleman is in the midst of a 2nd lawsuit against the school district, claiming the 2020 referendum that raised property taxes was illegal. The couple also advocates for environmental justice and is part of the community action that has stalled the sale of Ivanhoe School to a trucking company.

Nikki Byrd
Nikki Byrd

Nycletha ‘Nikki’ Byrd is one of the parties in Atty. Coleman’s lawsuit against the school district. Byrd has been at the forefront of parent protests at West Side.

Byrd has recorded thousands of volunteer hours in the Gary schools and is angry that parents’ now have limited access to school buildings. “Today, I’m persona non grata.”

Natalie Ammons of WLTH Radio is a big part of the movement, helping to provide bus transportation when citizen support is needed at the state capitol.

Gary legislators’ discussions with the DUAB have moved the needle some, Rep. Smith said. “They have stepped away from a state appointed school board but do not want an elected school board.”

Gary legislators are in difficult positions downstate and at home, Smith said. “Downstate, we can only get what they give us. And up here, our people think we can do more; to them compromise is a bad word.”

Smith said the DUAB is receptive to a locally appointed school board. When the legislature returns in 2023, he’ll see which way the Republicans will want to move the needle.

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