By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
The turmoil and financial crisis at Gary’s school district is threatening to take center stage in the Indiana Assembly where lawmakers are close to making a decision that would significantly determine the future of the troubled school system.
With millions of dollars in debt, lawmakers in the Republican-majority House will review a bailout bill that calls for the state to take financial control over the Gary school system, which for years, has been spiraling into chaos due to dwindling enrollment and property tax revenues.
After two failed referendums that aimed to stop the bleeding, the situation is dire for the Gary school system, and if lawmakers reject the bill, things could get much worse.
As lawmakers decide whether to pass the bill, the discord and the latest controversial spending decision by the school board has also come under scrutiny and some lawmakers are concerned about the bill’s chances of being passed through the House.
Lawmakers could review the bill this week, but with so much on the line for Gary schools, some supporters are on edge as they remind board members that the district is under a microscope. Some are concerned that the board’s action could influence the bill’s chances of passing the House.
At the same time, the board’s spending habits may be just reason for conservative lawmakers to take financial control away from the Gary School board.
Against opposition and the advice of some, the board on March 14 voted 4-2 to rehire former spokeswoman, Charmella Greer, to handle public relations for the board. Hoping to get more positive publicity, board members said Greer would be paid with federal Title I funds. Opponents who voted against the hire questioned the timing, rationale and followed advice to avoid spending.
After receiving pushback from Gary lawmakers, the board released a statement saying the hire was “delayed.”
In news reports, State Rep. Charlie Brown (D-Gary) said he was angry and shocked after the board approved the hiring of a public relations person. “How do you make a decision like that when you’re millions of dollars in the hole?” Brown said.
“It matters downstate how they make decisions to spend money when they’re asking us to bail them out,” Brown went on to say.
The school board is $103 million in debt, including $30 million owed to the state. Despite closing schools, staff being laid off and implementing budget cuts, financial woes still bedevil the school board. School board members are often at odds over how to solve the district’s financial problems.
The problem is so bad that the district was unable to make its March 3 payroll until Sen. Eddie Melton (D-Merrillville) stepped in and secured a $1.3 million bank loan. The board is expected to have a meeting about its finances with the state’s Distressed Unit Appeals Board, which granted the district a $3.75 million loan; far short of the $12 million that was requested.
Still, the Gary schools remains in deep financial trouble.
On Feb. 16, Senate Bill 567—a bailout bill sponsored by Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley and Sen. Eddie Melton (D-Merrillville)—cleared the Senate 49-0. If it passes in the House, the legislation would give financial control of the Gary Community School Corporation to a state-controlled Fiscal Management Board for a five-year period. The legislation would also provide a state-paid emergency manager and chief financial officer.
Melton, on Feb. 28, told the school board that Republicans were watching spending in the district carefully because of its enormous debts.
“From now until end of the year, I urge the board not to make any additional financial commitments that don’t deal with day-to-day academics,” Melton said.