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Democratic legislators corral debate on returning Gary school district to local control

Democratic legislators corral debate on returning Gary school district to local control

Legislators representing Gary want opinions from their constituents, now that the Distressed Unit Appeal Board has proposed a June 2025 timeline to end the state takeover of the Gary school district and return it to local control.

DUAB Chairman Justin McAdam said at its October meeting, the legislature will have to determine who the district “will be returned to” in Gary. The DUAB wants the legislature to put the makeup of a new school board and the selection of a new school superintendent on its 2023 agenda.

At two local meetings, one in October and the last on November 14, Gary legislators — Representatives Earl Harris, Ragen Hatcher, Vernon Smith and Senator Eddie Melton — asked residents for their opinions on the DUAB’s proposal.

Instead of past town hall forums where residents and legislators engaged in topics from A-Z, the Gary legislators chose the workshop format to survey residents.

Rep. Hatcher said, “We thought this would be the best way. If we get into a situation in the 2023 session where we don’t necessarily have the answers that we all want, what can we do instead? We want to know what is acceptable to the community.”

Early in the 2022 legislative session, Democrats were in a difficult situation when House Republicans introduced a bill to end the Gary school district takeover. It offended Gary Democrats and residents. The bill gave authority to the Indiana Secretary of Education to appoint a 7-member school board. Five of the members would be named by the education secretary. The two remaining positions would come from a list of candidates submitted to the education secretary by the Gary mayor and the Gary city council.

Four members of the school board had to be Gary residents. School board members would serve 4-year terms. The bill required the new school board to appoint the current emergency manager to a 1-year term.

Also, the bill would have ended the school district’s collective bargaining agreement with the Gary Teachers Union.

With that configuration and after two years of a balanced budget, the district would return to local control.

HB1187 drew citizens from Gary to protest and demonstrate at the state capitol. The bill was pulled by authors before its first committee hearing.

The two workshops were held on the IU Northwest Campus, moderated by Ellen Szarleta, Director, Center for Urban and Regional Excellence.

IMG 5355 Legislators table 1
Community members during the workshops held on the IU Northwest campus to give feedback to Democratic legislators leading to the introduction of a bill that would end the state takeover of Gary schools.

Szarleta posed three questions to the residents.

What should be the composition of the next school board? The majority favored a mix of appointed and elected members.

Should the next school superintendent be selected by the state or the next school board? The majority favored appointment by the new school board.

When should state control end? The majority favored a timeline of 2023 for a new board and 2024 for a new superintendent.

The district ended 2021 with a balanced budget and is on track to do the same in 2022.

Audience members used their cell phones to submit their responses.

IMG 5357 Legislatures table 2

The workshop format turned out really good, Hatcher said. “It gave everybody the chance to talk about what they thought was important. Also, they were able to write down ideas and answers. IU was really helpful because they tallied it up and gave us the biggest and most important issues.” Sharing ideas and reaching a consensus came easier to the residents, gathered around tables instead of being scattered in auditorium seating.

Democratic legislators will introduce their own bill to end the takeover, but it is unlikely to be heard said Rep. Smith. Because Republicans control the House and Senate, they decide which bills will be on this session’s agenda.

The DUAB has handled the responsibilities of the Gary school board since the state takeover of the school district in 2017. Soon after, MGT Consulting Group was hired as the district’s day-to-day operator and MGT put in place an emergency manager to act as the school superintendent.

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