Crusader staff report
On March 13, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson testified before the Indiana General Assembly Conference Committee Hearing and voiced concerns about the confusion over the role of Gary Schools emergency manager and HB1315, which would reduce the Gary School Board to an advisory committee that would meet just four times a year.
Both issues have taken center stage in the state’s battle to steer Gary Schools back to financial and academic solvency, but the process has caused major concern among parents and school board members who have watched helplessly as Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley close schools in Gary. Many fear the situation will get worse if HB1315 passes its final stage. The bill has passed the House and Senate and awaits approval by Gov. Eric Holcomb. Once the bill becomes a state law, Hinckley would no longer be required to meet with the board or receive input from its members. The new law would require her to hold monthly public meetings to update citizens on her actions. Current school board members would remain until their terms expire, and they could also elect their own officers and replace members who resign.
“This legislation has the effect of neutralizing the elected school board, and thus, the far-reaching
implications can be negating the elected process,” Freeman-Wilson said. “The law that was passed just last session, which has not even had the benefit of time to be fully realized, allows the elected board to meet monthly. HB 1315 reduces those meetings to quarterly and further erodes the idea of fair and representative government.”
During her testimony, Freeman-Wilson asked that the Gary School Board be allowed to “meet monthly so that the citizens of Gary will continue to have a voice.”
It was Freeman-Wilson’s strongest stand on the issue since the bill was introduced by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Tim Brown, (R-Crawfordsville) more than two months ago.At the hearing, Freeman-Wilson questioned the constitutionality of the bill saying that when the state took over Gary Schools in 2017, SB 567 required the Emergency Manager to consult with the Board of Trustees Fiscal Management Board and the mayor on a variety of material matters. Freeman-Wilson said this approach “was designed to ensure a voice for stakeholders.”
Freeman-Wilson said, “HB 1315, however, challenges that very premise by removing the consultation requirement and allowing the Emergency Manager to merely consider recommendations from those groups. This appears unchecked power to a group of individuals who have minimal accountability to the citizens of Gary. More importantly and significant to our citizens and those in other Indiana communities that value representative government, this bill is a message that the ability of a community to choose its own leaders is highly conditional, and the need for fiscal support leads to the forfeiture of access to the democratic process. Our country was founded on the principles of representative government, a minority voice and checks and balances. HB 1315 implies that the electorate of Gary is not wise enough to choose and/or replace its leaders.”
Freeman-Wilson also said, “House Bill 1315 has now been introduced into this imperfect storm. One of the over-arching criticisms of the bill by the community that it impacts is that it appears to be a reactive response to legitimate questions about a new paradigm and process rather than a sustainable solution.”
She went to say the state takeover of Gary schools in 2017 has evolved into a situation that left out the principles of the state working together with the mayor’s office and the citizens of Gary.
“The bill originated because of the need to resolve the finances of the School
Corporation, and some legislators took it as an opportunity to take control over the academic decision-making,” Freeman-Wilson said. “All parties acknowledged that the new law presented a new horizon and uncharted territory because this step had never been taken in Indiana. This implied the need for all involved to gain comfort and familiarity with the pro -cess.
“There was also a recognition that communication was essential to the navigation of this new terrain. Once the Emergency Manager was chosen in July 2017, it became clear there were more questions about the new process than answers. These questions stemmed from a variety of sources, but the ultimate uncertainty centered around the roles of the Emergency Manager, Board of Trustees, and the Fiscal Management Board in relationship to each other while ensuring quality education for the children of Gary and achieving the intent of the bill.
“The appropriate answer to the questions posed to the Emergency Manager is not to eliminate or muzzle the source of the questions, but to assure that the parties have a process for working through their concerns. To ignore the importance of this process is to imply that the Emergency Manager is a permanent solution and not the temporary measure it is designed to be.
“HB 1315, however, challenges that very premise by removing the consultation requirement and allowing the Emergency Manager to merely consider recommendations from those groups.
“Finally, I would implore representatives of all branches of government at the state and local level sit down with the Emergency Manager to set the ground rules in what remains a new paradigm for all involved. That would provide the best example and sustainable opportunity to ensure that the children of Gary receive a quality education.”