Photo caption: STATE SENATOR Eddie Melton testifies at the committee hearing
State says it’s local, just not elected in legislation to end Gary school district takeover
Gary’s public school district could have a new school board and be on its way to local control by the start of the 2023-24 school year, if Indiana legislators approve SB 327, a bill favored by the district’s current state manager — the Distressed Unit Appeal Board.
It’s not the kind of local control favored in an opposing bill for the district, SB 436, authored by Democratic State Senator Eddie Melton, from Gary. Republican Ryan Mishler, from Bremen, authored SB 327.
Both bills were on the agenda in Thursday’s Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, with a large contingent in attendance from Gary supporting Melton’s legislation. Mishler is the committee chair and Melton is a committee member.
Both propose a timeline to end the state takeover of the Gary Community School Corporation and the creation of a new school board.
DUAB Chairman Justin McAdam told the committee, “DUAB and MGT could be out in the summer of 2024, with a governing body and new leadership stepping in.”
Summer 2024 coincides with the end of the state’s 2-year contract with MGT Consulting. The education management company has overseen daily operations of the Gary school district, with contract renewals since the state takeover in 2017.
The bill has similar provisions to House Bill 1187 proposed at the start of the 2022 General Assembly. It called for a state-appointed school board for Gary with that body appointing the current emergency manager to be the school superintendent for the first year.
HB 1187 was pulled by its Republican author, never reaching a committee hearing. It outraged Democratic legislators representing Gary and became a cause for Gary residents to organize and keep the issue before the public.
SB 327 keeps the state-appointed school board and will allow the school board to select the school superintendent.
The 7-member school board will be made up of 5 members appointed by the Indiana Secretary of Education. The education secretary will appoint the remaining two members from a list suggested by Gary’s mayor.
Melton’s bill, SB 436, calls for the new school board to be elected in the November 7th General Election. And, SB 436 proposes that upon passage, the DUAB will release the district immediately from distressed unit status. The new school board would select a school superintendent.
The makeup of the new school board in Mishler’s bill worried Melton. He asked, “Why look to the education secretary to make appointments versus looking directly to locals. Do you feel people from Gary are not competent or qualified to lead the district?”
SB 327 calls for at least four board members to be from Gary or Lake County. McAdam said the DUAB is in the process of identifying local residents to become future board members.
The bill does not have any language for an elected school board in Gary. Board members can serve indefinitely, appointed and removed by the education secretary.
In all likelihood, it won’t be “if SB327 passes” in the Republican-dominated legislature, but what the language will be as it leaves the Appropriations Committee, finishes its journey in the Senate and then turned over to the House.
While testimonies by DUAB and MGT described how they met the challenges and put in policies that saved Gary’s public school system, Melton said the school district and its community suffered from those policies directed from a board in Indianapolis, 150 miles and a 2-hour drive away.
DUAB and MGT pointed to gains in financial stability and building improvements. Since the takeover, Melton said, academic achievement has not kept up. “Also, parents complained they were not allowed in schools to be engaged and that MGT did not have a culture of inclusivity.”
For Appropriations Committee member Sen. Chris Garten, when Gary had local control, “They failed Hoosier students and robbed them of educational opportunity” because of mismanagement.
Committee member Sen. Liz Brown said, “Before MGT stepped in, Gary was a debt-ridden school district that couldn’t give raises to its teachers and couldn’t pay its bills.” That’s what local control in Gary meant to her.
Sen. Lonnie Randolph, from East Chicago and a committee member, asked why the high school graduation rate in Gary dropped after the state takeover.
The graduation rate at West Side has not come up to the 85% level it had when the state took over the district in the summer of 2017 and the year after in 2018. In 2019, West Side had a 58% graduation rate. In 2020, its graduation rate was 64%; in 2021 it was 66%. For 2022, it leapt to 79%.
Steve Mays, Gary NAACP president, testified that after the state takeover, “We fixed the buildings, but didn’t keep up the academics. There was no accountability. You got to align the academics with the money.”
Melton said one of the important things his bill calls for is elimination of the Gary school corporation’s debt incurred by loans from the Indiana Common School Fund. That debt is over $50 million.
Next for SB 327, Mishler said, are more discussions and possibly an amendment in the coming week.