The Crusader Newspaper Group

Gary schools tug of war ends in loss

By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader

After years of spiraling debts, dwindling enrollment and school closures, Gary school officials lost full control of the district system after Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill on April 28 that put the state in charge of the troubled school system.

Last-minute appeals fell flat as Holcomb approved the bill to close out the spring session of the Indiana General Assembly in Indianapolis.

The same day, Holcomb traveled to Gary where he attended a meet-and-greet session downtown with Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson. It was an awkward environment where emotions were running high among some Black lawmakers who were not happy with Holcomb giving the state full control of the Gary School District.

Jobs of thousands of employees and the future of the district remain uncertain as the state prepares to appoint an emergency manager who will have full authority to make both financial and academic decisions over the district. In addition, a chief financial officer and a chief academic officer will be brought on board. Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt and school board members will have little say in the matter.

In response to the state takeover, Pruitt released a statement to the Gary Crusader.

“I welcome the collaboration with the State, and we continue to implement the GCSC Transformation Zone. The GCSC strategic plan was composed in 2014 by over 100 stakeholders taking thousands of hours dedicated to developing a plan to transform the district.  As we move forward, let’s not forget the accomplishments our district continues to experience.”

The new legislation comes as the district heads into the last two months of its academic school year. It’s uncertain when the emergency manager will be appointed or how soon cuts and layoffs will be announced. One thing that’s certain is that major steps are needed to keep Gary’s schools open and running.

The move was the final blow to a school system overwhelmed with $103 million in debt and plagued by internal strife, while the futures of thousands of students remain uncertain. Schools were closed while others were left to crumble. In two separate elections in 2015 and 2017, Gary voters rejected two referendums that called for a special tax to help the struggling school district.

In March, the district was forced to borrow $1.3 million to make its payroll. In January, the Gary School District received an ‘F’ grade—the lowest mark in the state—but the district’s graduation rate improved to 86 percent.

With the financial crisis spiraling out of control and community distrust in the school board escalating, the possibility of a state takeover became likely, and to some critics, necessary.

Six consecutive years of ‘F’ grades resulted in the state taking over Gary’s storied Roosevelt College and Career Academy in 2012. However, the historic Black school continued to get failing marks while under management of the EdisonLearning Corporation. The state approved a new five-year contract with EdisonLearning this year.

With the entire school system now in the hands of the state, Black lawmakers are concerned that the appointed emergency manager will lack the knowledge and understanding to make sound decisions in steering the district in the right directions.

State Rep. Vernon G. Smith said he’s concerned that academic programs will suffer as possible cuts and layoffs are made to help erase the district’s debts.

“I’m just concerned they will sacrifice our academic programs just to save money,” Smith said.

State Sen. Eddie Melton was one of several lawmakers who tried to save the district with HB567. The original bill that unanimously passed in February called for the state to take over managing the district’s finances. To the dismay of Melton and other Black lawmakers, the Republican-controlled House in March revised the bill to give the state both financial and academic control of the Gary School District.

Black lawmakers urged Gary residents to voice their support in helping the district keep academic control of the school system, but those efforts failed to convince the Assembly that Gary can lift itself out of its problems.

What started out as a bill to help the Gary School District snowballed into a piece of legislation that that some say may do more harm than good to Gary schools.

“I didn’t like the way the bill ended, but it started out as an effort to save Gary schools,” Smith said. “I think there are going to be major cuts. I think they are going to sell a lot of school property.”


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