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Leaders seek solutions to Gary’s school problems

As the Gary Community School Corporation seeks to find solution to its mounting financial problems, local and state leaders are weighing in.

Published reports show that former Sen. Earline Rogers, Sen. Eddie Melton and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson met with Sen. Luke Kenley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Karen Tallian last month to address the issue.

The meeting took place a few weeks after Gary voters rejected—for a second time in 18 months—a referendum that would have raised $8.7 million annually for seven years to aid the school system. Passage of the referendum would have resulted in a tax increase for Gary homeowners.

Due to the narrow margin of defeat—50.87 percent to 49.13 percent—local leaders say they are willing to propose the measure again. “I think it shows that taxpayers are willing to support the Gary Schools once they are made aware of the facts,” said Freeman-Wilson the day after the election.

A day after the meeting, Kenley stated in an interview with the Times of Northwest Indiana that lawmakers need to get the school district out of debt and that the district needs stability in its programming.

After the school district appealed to the state for assistance, the state’s Distressed Unit Appeals Board (DUAB) presented a deficit elimination plan. Financial consultant Jack Martin was brought in by the DUAB to assist the school district with the plan. Martin said the district was $100 million in debt and $2 million was in its operating budget. Since he has been working with the district, Martin said that he has been able to cut $3 million of the debt.

To further eliminate the debt, Martin said the district needs to cut an additional 95 employees along with the closing of schools with declining enrollments.  For the last three years, Gary has been involved with assisting the school district in combating the financial problems. Freeman-Wilson has held numerous meetings with school officials and met with then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz about the Gary schools.

Recently, the city has proposed a plan to provide the school district with an infusion of cash between $200,000-$300,000 of tax incremental financing funds.  If the proposal is agreed upon, the school district could start receiving the funds as early as the first part of next year.

The plan could also provide funds for the sale of many of the unused or vacant school properties. Based on the proposal, the school district will get 40 percent of the tax increment revenue from tax increment financing districts after bonds and existing obligations are met. The school district will receive 15 percent of the gross of new tax increment money from new districts.

Favoring the plan, Freeman-Wilson said that it shows that we are working together and getting support from Indianapolis.

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