By David Denson, Gary Crusader
A coalition of civil rights, labor and community organizations plan to launch a protest aimed at eroding the duties of the Gary School Board.
They took their protest to Indianapolis on February 22 where the Senate Appropriations Committee is holding hearings on HB1315.
On February 21, several leaders of the protest joined Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson at a press conference in City Hall to announce the action.
During the press conference, Freeman-Wilson voiced support for the emergency management team’s efforts, but took exception to the legislation aimed at the Gary Community School and stated that the bill is an attempt to deny the citizens their right to representation.
Steve Mays, president of the Gary NAACP and one of the organizers of the protest, said that the bill has not only garnered local and statewide attention, it has caught the attention of the NAACP’s national office. Mays said that if there is no change in the legislation, the protest would be the beginning of other actions that the organization will take.
If enacted, HB1315 would further diminish the role of the school board in the policy-making decisions regarding the Gary Community Schools. Current legislation gives the decision authority to the emergency manager with the school board acting in an advisory capacity. However, HB 1315–sponsored by Rep. Tim Brown–seeks to further erode the board’s involvement in the decision-making process.
The bill that passed in the House this month has moved to the Senate for consideration. It would reduce the number of meetings the board could hold to four meeting annually and would require the emergency manager to hold monthly forums.
In other school related matters, Emergency Manager for the Gary Schools Peggy Hinckley is proposing the Wirt-Emerson School for Visual and Performing Arts be closed at the end of current academic year.
During a meeting of the Distressed Unit Appeals Board on February 16, Hinckley told board members that the cash-strapped school district could not continue to operate two high schools. “…a single comprehensive facility will reduce expenses and potentially increase revenue by growing enrollment,” she stated.
Hinckley recommended West Side Leadership Academy as the school district’s high school and said based on a review by the Gary School Recovery team, along with community input at four public meetings, it was decided the Wirt-Emerson should close.
The decision to close Wirt-Emerson was based on the school’s poorly maintained facility, location and the growth potential at West Side. Hinckley went on to say West Side is better positioned to meet the needs of a “comprehensive high school.”
It is the belief of the school management team that the closing of Wirt-Emerson could increase the school system’s future revenue. Recently, Hinckley asked the DUAB to authorize a loan to make payroll in March and April. The State Board of Finance awarded a $3.75 million loan from the state’s Common School Loan Fund.
Currently, the Gary Community School Corporation is facing a $1.5 million monthly deficit. The emergency management team brought in to reduce the system’s debt and academic problems, anticipates that by 2019 a plan will be in place to address the debt problem. So far, emergency management has borrowed $16 million in state funds to keep the school system afloat.
While the closing of Wirt-Emerson is part of the plan to reduce debt and increase revenue, its closing has received tepid support. Upon learning of plans to close Wirt-Emerson, Senator Eddie Melton released the following statement, “In learning of the closure of Wirt-Emerson, I join my community in the disappointment to learn that another iconic institution will soon close its doors.
“The district continues to face a declining student population and fiscal issues with insurmountable debt over $100 million. These obstacles have required the emergency manager to make some very tough decisions to ensure that the district remains operational. While Dr. Hinckley is preparing to move forward, I hope that they ensure that the future and existing vacant school building are adequately decommissioned and secured for public safety along with a long-term plan to address many abandoned structures in Gary.”