By Justin McAdam & Peter Miller
The accounting books have closed on 2021, and Gary Community School Corporation officially took in more money than it spent this past year. It’s a significant milestone.
Just five years ago, Gary Schools spent $22 million more than it took in and had accumulated $104 million in debt, including unpaid bills of $16.5 million. Everything from unpaid staff salaries to unkempt grounds, leaky roofs, and fire-code violations plagued the district. Academics suffered. Textbooks had not been refreshed for ten years in some instances, students had very limited access to technology, and there was no consistent model to track achievement data. In short, the school corporation was in disarray.
The same year, the Indiana General Assembly approved legislation that designated Gary Community Schools as a “distressed political subdivision” and placed the corporation under the oversight of the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeal Board. DUAB was granted an appropriation and hired MGT Consulting as the emergency manager to run the district and return it to financial solvency.
Many deserve credit for the turnaround. The emergency manager made tough financial decisions. The state authorized $39 million in interest-free loans from the common school fund that could be used for any purpose, including making payroll. No other school district in the state has been granted this special ability. Then in 2020, the voters of Gary approved an operating referendum that will provide additional property tax dollars through 2028.
These combined actions have helped the school district turn the page. Gary teachers have received pay increases each of the last two years after going more than a decade without adjustments. Nearly $43 million is slated to be spent on capital repairs. More athletic and extracurricular activities are available to students.
The $2 million operating surplus should be celebrated, but there is more work to be done to increase operating cash balances and decrease debt levels.
Past years necessitated an outsized concentration on finances and operations but now, district leaders can focus more attention on academics, and efforts are underway to address achievement gaps and lagging test scores.
Gary Schools has added an hour to the school day, which means students entering kindergarten will have the equivalent of two years of additional instruction by the time they graduate high school. More tutoring, remediation and CTE options have also been put in place.
These initiatives are already producing promising signs in recent iReady formative test results. In the fall 2021 semester, 10 percent of K-8 students moved from being behind grade level in reading to being on pace, and 7 percent did the same in math.
DUAB has no intention of running Gary Community Schools any longer than necessary and a transition plan will be developed to move away from state control. Legislative action will be required to establish a local governing body. Once in place, that entity will conduct a search for the next superintendent and engage in a smooth changeover. Now is a good time to reflect on the gains made over the past five years that will restore the foundations of the district and allow it to build for the future.
Mr. McAdam serves as chairman of the Distressed Unit Appeal Board. Mr. Miller serves as the executive director of the Distressed Unit Appeal Board.