By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
After years of frustration as head of Gary schools, Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt resigned Nov. 28, the latest casualty since the struggling school district was taken over by the state in May.
With financial woes still a problem in the district, Pruitt’s resignation raises questions about whether her position will be filled or whether anyone will want a lame-duck job that has no power or authority over Gary schools.
Pruitt, whose contract pays her $136,000 a year through 2019, said she will leave the district next year. In a telephone interview with the Crusader, Pruitt said she has no plans lined up, but looks forward to starting a new chapter in her life.
“I just feel that it’s time to begin a new journey,” said Pruitt.
A graduate of Roosevelt, Pruitt was appointed superintendent in 2012 after her predecessor, Myrtle Campbell, was fired as the district was in the midst of a downward spiral with mounting debts and dwindling enrollment. Many school districts across the country are experiencing the same problems, but with over $100 million in debt, the Gary school district is in worse shape, by far, than many.
For years, many of Gary’s leaders and teachers had accused the state’s Republican majority legislature of ignoring the district’s problems as they grew worse. On several occasions, the district was forced to borrow millions from the state to make payroll.
Under state control, in 2015, Roosevelt College and Career Academy still received an “F” grade while under a multi-million-dollar contract with EdisonLearning in a failed turnaround effort that shut out Pruitt as an advisor. The state later signed another contract to pay EdisonLearning over $5 million, but that time Pruitt served as advisor.
There were also accusations of mismanagement and in-fighting within the Gary school district. Some say the problems stemmed from frustrations with growing problems. In the end, the situation took a toll on Pruitt, who weathered two failed referendums that would have generated millions in relief for Gary schools.
In a telephone interview with the Crusader, Pruitt said that she has been thinking about quitting for two-and-a-half years, but her passion for education kept her going.
“These students are my children,” she said. “The things they have to go through day-to-day is unbelievable.”
Pruitt said for the remainder of her term as superintendent, she will serve as an administrative resource for Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley and her team. She said she and all “board members are committed to a smooth and productive transition, continuing to address the needs of the school system and providing the best possible education for the students of Gary schools.”
Under her leadership, Pruitt said graduation rates increased by 25 percent in two years from 60 percent to nearly 86 percent. In four years, the literacy rate for third grade students improved by 19 percent from nearly 69 percent to 88 percent.
However, those achievements were not enough to keep the state from taking over the district when it was a given an overall “F” on the state’s accountability report. After the state took over the district in May, two months later, it appointed Hinckley as the emergency manager who would have academic and financial control over a district badly in need of a turnaround.
Later, Hinckley would later sign a two-year contract that would earn her and her Florida firm $6.2 million, plus bonus incentives that would pay hundreds of thousands more. Pruitt and school board members would not have a say in anything. Pruitt said this was not a factor in her decision to resign.
“I never had a full say in the district because I always had to report to the board,” Pruitt told the Crusader.
It’s not clear whether Hinckley or the state will appoint a new superintendent. Filling the position will not only be costly, but worthless because Hinckley as the emergency manager must reduce the district’s massive debt by making tough decisions.
Questions remain about whether Pruitt was forced out of the position after an audit from the State Board of Accounts asked Pruitt to return $30,000 that Pruitt said was a bonus she received as part of the 2012 contract. Pruitt said the bonus clause was specified under payroll. Last year, Pruitt received $178,300, according to reports.
Despite the challenges, Pruitt said she has no hard feelings.
“I’m hoping the Legislature will give these kids an opportunity for a good education.”