By Keith Chambers, Gary Crusader
The clock is ticking as Black leaders make desperate appeals to citizens to voice their support for Gary schools as the district braces for a state takeover that strips total control from the district.
In the beginning, Black lawmakers were supportive of the proposal, but concerns grew after the Republican-controlled House passed a bill that would allow the state to seize both financial and academic control of the district. Now, the district’s future will be determined in the next two weeks as the General Assembly winds down to its final legislative session on April 29.
It will be a fight to the finish for Black lawmakers who are trying to convince fellow lawmakers to allow the Gary School Board to at least have academic control during the state takeover.
It’s what State Sen. Eddie Melton aimed to do when he proposed Senate Bill 567, a bailout bill that was unanimously passed in the Senate in February. But under a revised bill that was passed in the Republican-controlled House on April 3, a state-appointed emergency manager would have the authority to reduce districts and change its academic programs in order to balance the district’s budget and pay off its massive debt. The revised bill also doesn’t include bailout funds that the district will have while schools are open.
Under the proposed legislation, the emergency manager would appoint a financial officer and chief academic officer who would decide on what budget cuts to make, along with the district superintendent.
Ultimately, the emergency manager will have the most authority in making final decisions. Black lawmakers are concerned that the emergency manager will not be from the Gary area and will not be well-informed enough to make sound academic decisions.
Nevertheless, the Gary school district needs help.
The district has debts totaling more than $100 million of which $30 million is owed to the state. Despite layoffs, budget cuts and school closings, severe financial woes remain and with little funds to repair crumbling schools, the problems could get worse for the Gary School District. For years, the district has also suffered from dwindling student enrollment.
The Gary Community School Corporation received an overall ‘F’ accountability grade from the state in 2016 according to the Indiana Department of Education. That same year, seven out of 12 public schools in Gary received an ‘F’ grade and three received a ‘D.’ The overall graduation rate for the district in 2016 was 86 percent.
Melton and other Black lawmakers are opposed to giving the state academic control of the district, saying the state in the past has been ineffective when it took control academically of underperforming schools. They point to Roosevelt College and Career Academy, which received four consecutive ‘F’ grades while under state control and managed by the EdisonLearning Corporation.
“They’ve proven to be not effective based on schools they’ve taken over across the state,” Melton said.
On April 7, a delegation of Northwest Indiana Democratic lawmakers attended a Gary School Board meeting. They urged about 40 citizens to contact Indiana lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb to support legislation that would keep academic control of the district in the hands of the school board.
Black lawmakers hope the appeals will change some of the harsh measures of a bill that will likely be signed into legislation.
“Personally, I’m not pleased at all in having an outside emergency manager. Granted our schools have financial and academic problems,” said State Rep. Charlie Brown. “We still should have some local control.”
State Rep. Dr. Vernon Smith, who made unsuccessful amendments to add bailout money to the bill, agreed.
“I am greatly concerned about the state’s takeover of our schools and where that is going to lead us,” said Smith, who is also an education professor at Indiana University Northwest. “I offered four amendments to get some guarantees for the academic integrity of our district and to receive education grants that we desperately need. The Republican majority said ‘no’ to all four amendments.
“I tried my best to make this bill better,” lamented Smith. “One gets the feeling that those from wealthier communities don’t understand the challenges our community faces, and sadly, I am beginning to believe they really don’t care.”
In an op-ed letter in this week’s Gary Crusader, School Supt. Cheryl Pruitt said, “I welcome the collaboration with the state. However, let’s not forget the accomplishments our district continues to experience.”
While some Black lawmakers blame some of the district’s problems on mismanagement, Melton believes the district’s financial woes are due to Gary’s eroded tax base and the new charter and voucher schools. The revised bill is set to go before a joint legislative conference that will be held in the final days of the General Assembly which adjourns on April 29.
Brown said there is still time to appeal to the Assembly to add a bailout fund to the bill and remove academic control from the state from the proposed legislation.
“We haven’t given up,” Brown said. “We’re going to try and take that out.” “Our priority is that we end the school year effectively and begin the school year effectively,” Melton said.