By Carlos Tolliver
In Gary, as with school districts nationwide, voters elect fellow citizens to their local school boards and charge them with the core tasks of district management: hiring administrators, setting budget priorities that determine how millions in tax dollars are spent. They insure the public tax dollar is spent wisely and for children, set goals for student achievement and evaluates progress toward those goals. As well as set policies that determine which courses and programs are offered, books, educational programs and technology purchased. If they do their jobs well, schools do a better job of educating students.
Student achievement ranks second only to fiscal concerns as school board members’ highest priority. Do voters hold school board members accountable for school fiscal administration and student academic performance? Do we support board members when these things are done well, or vote against members when schools, students, school finances struggle under their watch? In Gary, voters have not paid attention to the activities of our publicly funded school system. On a given election, only a fourth of the participating voters bother to vote for school board candidates. Often it is an uninformed vote, based on issues other than the performance, qualifications, previous accomplishments and educational vision of the candidates.
A review of Gary Community School Corporation finances raises troubling questions about its spending. A smug majority of the school board approved “no bid” contracts in the transportation, maintenance, food service, and Title 1 departments. Attention should be given to the student transportation contract. Despite annual declines in student enrollment, massive costs have far exceeded budget limits for student transportation. Millions of dollars designed to improve student services are sidetracked to questionable administrative expenses. Perhaps the greatest irony is while the Superintendent receives a $30,000 bonus, staff have not received a raise in over a decade, pay more for reduced health care coverage, suffer a loss of benefits, and delayed pay days.
Contrary to inaccurate reports made by the district’s “financial consultant,” it is our huge school debt service, state changes in the educational funding formula and questionable internal spending that are the main sources of our huge public debt for schools, not “overstaffing.” The financial consultants’ debatable selection is a major concern. He abruptly retired as “emergency manager” of Detroit Public Schools amid news reports and public outcry about his increasing the school debt, unsafe building conditions for students and teachers, and public criticism of his policy of increasing administrative costs at the expense of children. His first year saw our school debt grow from 75 to 90 million dollars, outsourced the human resources department at the loss of local jobs and increased cost to taxpayers. Proposed outsourcing of maintenance/custodial services/support services, auctioning off invaluable equipment and supplies, excessive administrative costs and staff layoffs, again at the expense of children and taxpayers. As in Detroit, Mr. Martin appears to address our budget deficit by taking funds from the classroom, while preserving, if not, increasing the amount that goes to administrative costs.
The District received a grade of F for the past three years. Poor school performance has a negative economic/cultural impact on communities. We must commit to a level of expected student achievement and the process to achieve these goals. There has been an annual decline in student performance on state test scores. Schools in the 1st District have experienced annual major drops in student academic performance over the past 3 years, and a subsequent loss in enrollment/revenue. What are the reasons for the student academic performance decline? I submit it is caused mainly by the lack of a coherent District academic vision, a lack of building leadership and annual decreases in allocations for classroom instruction. Now the District is considering a proposal to raise class sizes to 40, similar to the proposal offered by Mr. Martin in Detroit, where he was roundly criticized. Research shows two critical factors to student academic success are class size and experienced teachers. What are the results of increasing student class size to 40, with few books/supplies? Student academic performance will continue to suffer, more teachers and children will leave the District. The District’s financial situation will have worsened and its negative impact on taxpayers as well.
Everyone, not just parents, has a stake in the success of Gary Public Schools. When schools are strong and students succeed, we all benefit. We must take an informed position on our schools and demand accountability and transparency.
Carlos Tolliver is Precinct Committeeperson G1-22, a retired teacher, former President of the Gary Teachers Union and community activist.