Crusader staff report
The cameras were rolling and the drama was unfolding. Gary Schools Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley believed she had put an end to the televised school board meetings on the city’s cable access channel, but she was wrong.
On Tuesday, September 26, to Hinckley’s dismay, a videographer showed up to televise the school board meeting. But to unhappy school board members, it was show time.
Tensions are rising among Gary School officials who are growing frustrated with Hinckley at the helm of the financially-strapped school district. In the center of it all are the school board meetings. In years past they have been the scene for fights and heated battles, but a new chapter in the School Board’s history has turned the drama up a notch.
A rift is growing as Hinckley makes hard choices while school board members who have been stripped of their authority, struggle to support her new leadership. While some of Hinckley’s decisions receive praise, her attempt to end televised meetings has stirred intense disapproval among School Board members.
Hinckley was hired to run the school district in August, after Indiana lawmakers took control of the Gary School district following years of financial distress and F grades on the state’s accountability report. Since she began her new job, Hinckley has closed several underutilized schools. On Wednesday, October 4 accompanied by principals from underachieving schools, Hinckley went before the State Board of Education and presented plans to improve academic achievement at the two struggling Gary elementary schools: Beveridge and Marquette Elementary Schools.
For the past six years, Beveridge has received an “F” while Marquette has received an “F” grade in the last five years.
In her presentation, Hinckley pointed out the root causes of failure, which she said include a lack of effective teaching, outdated instructional resources, and inadequate professional development.
(For years Gary teachers, administrators and leaders have accused the state’s Republican lawmakers of neglecting the district as its problems grew due to dwindling enrollment and revenues from declining property values.)
Hinckley said the new academic plan for Beveridge and Marquette includes extending the school day for two additional hours, three days per week for additional Language Arts and math instruction.
But the proposal to end televised school board meetings on Gary’s access channel did not go as smoothly.
The meetings have been televised for years, but Hinckley wants to cut them to save the district money and reduce its $100 million plus debt. Since taking the helm of the school district, Hinckley reportedly has been trimming costs to reduce budget overruns of about $1.8 million a month. Hinckley also wanted to limit field trips and reduce all travel. She said those things are out of control.
Televised school board meetings are an expense Hinckley wants to cut. While Hinckley wanted to eliminate them, school board member Robert Buggs Sr. wants to keep the cameras rolling. So he hired a photographer for $150 to continue the service.
“The number one problem is we are exceeding revenue,” she said in one news report. “We’re a people business. Ninety percent of our budget is payroll. How do you reduce it? We have to start figuring it out.”
Besides clamping down on the broadcasts, Hinckley is limiting field trips, and she said, “Those are things out of control.”
At the September 26 meeting, some school board members expressed their anger about not having any authority over the district’s finances or academics. But Hinckley told them that she didn’t write the law and offered to meet with the board members to keep them informed on the district’s progress.
“Being an elected official, we have no power anymore and that bothers me. I don’t see why we’re not involved in decision-making for the Gary schools,” board member James Piggee said. “I feel like it’s the 1930s, when we worked in the fields.”
Under Indiana’s bailout law, Gary’s school board is entitled to hold only one public meeting a month, but the financial and academic decisions are still made by Hinckley, the emergency manager.