State Representative Vernon Smith says school tax would give some local control in Gary Schools
Crusader Staff Report
The Gary Common Council on Tuesday, September 15 voted 5-2 to pass a resolution that supports the Gary Community School Corporation (GCSC) referendum asking voters for a property tax to increase funding for the struggling school district.
“These investments in Gary’s future come at the right time and for the right places,” said William G. Godwin, the Councilperson for the First District, which includes Miller Beach. “We love our schoolchildren, and they deserve to go to school in facilities that will enable them to have the same opportunities as other kids. These improvements will go a long way for their future and for the people of our community. We look forward to being a partner in this progress.”
The vote came after Gary Community School Corporation Manager Dr. Paige McNulty spoke at length to the Council about the rationale of the referendum. Passing the referendum, she said, would create more opportunities for students, increase safety and supports, and reward teachers for their work. Passing the referendum is also the best way to help end the State of Indiana’s control of Gary schools. It also demonstrates that the Gary community believes that the future of our community is tied to providing outstanding educational opportunities for Gary public schoolchildren.
“We’re grateful to have the Council’s support of the Nov. 3 referendum,” McNulty said in a statement. “The Council joins taxpayers, parents, grandparents, teachers, faith-based leaders, business owners, elected officials, and dozens of community leaders across the city who believe Gary schoolchildren deserve the best, and who are voting ‘yes’ on or before November 3.”
The resolution is now in the hands of Mayor Jerome Prince, who has not publicly stated his position on the referendum.
State Representative Vernon Smith, State Senator Eddie Melton and former Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson all support the referendum.
Smith said the referendum will give Gary parents and teachers a voice in the district.
“The referendum will, in a sense, give some local control of the school district,” Smith said. “It will help teachers and make sure some important things in these schools aren’t overlooked.”
On November 3, Gary voters will decide whether to approve a referendum that will impose 52 cents per $100 assessed-value tax. Over an eight-year period, that tax increase will generate $8.9 million each year with the goal of closing the school district deficit.
Smith supports the referendum. He told the Crusader that the referendum will establish a path for regaining local control of the school district, which was fully taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education in 2017 after years of spiraling debts and low academic achievement.
Smith has been the most prominent, outspoken Black leader to fight for more local control and transparency in the Gary school district. He also fought for the Distressed Unit Appeals Board to include academic benchmarks in the emergency manager’s contract before bonuses are handed out.
Progress has been made in reducing the district’s debts, but Smith remains concerned about the lack of academic progress in Gary schools under the stakeover.
He said the referendum will give Gary residents a say in decisions being made over the school district after concerns that too much focus is being placed on reducing debts and not on academic achievement and empowering teachers and students.
Some community leaders believe the district is in worse shape academically today than three years ago when the state contracted with MGT Consulting to manage the academic and financial condition of Gary schools. Many of the educators in the district are substitute teachers. Many teachers reportedly have not had a raise in more than a decade.
If the referendum passes, district officials say the first $1 million generated will go toward raises for teachers.
McNulty said district leaders will also direct funds collected from the referendum, if passed, in its first year to resolving the school corporation’s deficit–a condition of ending state intervention in Indiana’s only remaining takeover school district. The first $1 million collected will be put toward teacher raises. McNulty said the district would consider a 4 to 4.5 percent raise for teachers should the referendum pass.
Last month, the Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Gary & Vicinity officially pledged its support of the Gary Community School Corporation’s referendum during their “Praise in the Park” Service at Froebel Park.
In recent years, two similar referendums failed at the polls.
In 2015, nearly 56 percent of voters rejected a tax referendum led by then GCSC Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt. In 2016, voters rejected another referendum for the school district, but the margin of defeat was much narrower, with nearly 51 percent voting ‘no’ and 49 percent approving it.
This time is different. Gary schools are now in the hands of the state, which has reduced the district’s debt, but has failed to turn the schools around academically with burned-out teachers.
After three years, three emergency managers, plummeting graduation rates and soaring suspensions, voters may be thirsty for change and a voice in putting financial resources in the underfunded district that continues to suffer academically.
There are also negative factors, including public distrust in the GCSC and concerns of worsening financial conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, district officials also say that the referendum will accelerate efforts to pay off the district’s debts and return local control to Gary schools. However, another failed referendum may mean more years under state control.
By state law, the school corporation must eliminate its deficit, which sat at $22 million in August 2017, and maintain a balanced budget for at least two years to be returned to local control.
Funds from the referendum will also be used for social and emotional learning services, extracurricular programs and career and technical education. The school district aims to attain state STEM certification for its Beveridge Elementary, Glen Park Academy and Bailly STEM Academy schools by next year.