Black lawmakers speak out after Roosevelt closure

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STATE REPRESENTATIVE VERNON SMITH (center) speaks during a meeting while (left to right) State Senator Lonnie Randolph, State Representatives Ragen Hatcher, Earl Harris, Jr. and State Senator Eddie Melton look on.

By Giavonni Nickson

Members of the Black Legislative Caucus on Saturday, February 15 at the Glen Theater provided updates on bills passed during the first half of the session, but the biggest concern was the future of Roosevelt College and Career Academy.

Just two days before the forum, the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeal Board (DUAB), which oversees the state takeover of the Gary Community School Corporation (GCSC), announced its unanimous decision not to invest in repairs at Roosevelt. Their vote, upon the recommendations of GCSC’s emergency team, will close the Roosevelt building.

House Representatives Vernon Smith, Earl Harris Jr., and Ragen Hatcher joined Senators Lonnie Randolph, and Eddie Melton to address nearly 100 constituents and answer their questions.

The panel provided an overview of the process a bill takes as it gets bounced from the House to the Senate with potential amendments and threat of death on the floor while residents wait for change. Because Democrats are a super minority in Indiana, legislators stressed the need for more community organization to leverage the power of their collective voice.

Before opening the floor to the public for a question and answer session, each legislator provided an overview of crucial legislation they authored or co-authored.

Moments later, the subject turned to Roosevelt’s building, which will be closed for good after the DUAB made its final decision not to reopen the school, which would cost between $9.3 to $15 million to repair.

“The building should not be torn down and because of that, we’ve got to offer some creative ways, not just with Roosevelt alumni but also with people who are concerned about Black history and the integration movement. We have to come together collectively, look at finding funding to keep that building open,” said Smith who mentioned being distraught when Froebel High School was demolished.

“We have to figure out a way as a community, to preserve our history, and at the same time, build one for the future generations,” said Melton.

When the question and answer portion of the forum commenced, residents anxiously assembled in a long line. The hot button issue that sparked most questions surrounded Senate Bill (SB) 416, which deals with GCSC.

Constituents raised concerns about SB 416, frustrated and seeking answers to the question: When will local control be returned? According to an amendment to the bill, local control may not actualize for another 10-12 years.

Melton addressed the struggle for finding a pathway back to local control because of amendments made to the original bill.

“The original version of this was to return local control. The amended version does not do that. I agree that we need to have a pathway back to local control. We have to urge a force to demand this on a grander scale. This is not only the legislature, but it’s also the governor’s office because we can’t allow them to escape in terms of who’s responsible or accountable as a state entity. We have to take that message to the next level,” said Melton.

Another point in the legislation is that the school corporation, under the control of state management company MGT, has to be in the black financially before it can be given back to local control.

According to Hatcher, “MGT does not have any incentive to be in the black. With their open-ended contract, as long as they continue to operate at a negative, they can continue to operate. Its contract is up in June, so are we going to have them or someone else. We have to have oversight into MGT’s spending.”

Smith voiced further complaints and critique of MGT that mirrored that of the constituents.

“MGT received a quarter-million-dollar bonus because they created a plan,” said Smith.

Smith, who was on the DUAB board at the time, pointed out a myriad of flaws in the plan after reviewing it thoroughly. Despite the noted deficiencies, MGT still received the bonus.

Hatcher discussed her focus on removing bail for misdemeanor offenses and removing an automatic year suspension if a citizen chooses not to take a Breathalyzer test during a traffic stop.

Smith discussed Senate Bill (SB) 1006 regarding the abuse of tobacco laws in the city or Gary with vaping at the forefront of tobacco legislation.

Harris discussed a bill that would prevent tuition changes for first-year college students and ensure rates remain unchanged until graduation, and Melton explained a property tax amnesty program.

Giavonni is a passionate freelance writer native of Gary IN. She covers business, politics, and community schools for the Chicago/Gary Crusader.

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