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Representatives Vernon Smith and Earl Harris veer DUAB from Agenda

Contributed By The 411 News

Gary and Muncie have sharp declines in students leaving their school districts.

Before the DUAB (Distressed Unit Appeal Board) could get to the main agenda item of its October 10 meeting – the Gary schools’ 2019 annual budget – the future of Gary’s Bethune Early Childhood Development Center was brought to their attention.

In fact, Wednesday’s meeting turned out to be more about Bethune and concerns from Gary’s State Representative Vernon Smith and his constituents about Emergency Manager Dr. Peggy Hinckley, presented by a DUAB advisory member.

Sandwiched between State Representative Earl Harris’ remarks about Bethune’s closing and questions from Rep. Smith, the DUAB approved the district’s annual budget, one that has not changed much since last year’s. And chairman Micah Vincent announced the Gary school district lost only 97 students, instead of the 400-500 student population drops per year that have occurred for the last 10 years.

“We have seen some leveling off, due in part to the good work of the team,” said Vincent. The DUAB and the emergency management team of Dr. Hinckley and MGT Consulting are partners in the operation of the Gary Community School Corporation. In 2017, the Indiana legislature approved SB567, the law authorizing the state’s takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts.

The Muncie school district also saw a steep decline in the number of students leaving its district. According to the Star Press, “Enrollment is down just 46 students from a year ago. The loss of less than one percent of the student body is significant compared to annual losses in the previous five years of between 3.2 percent and 8.3 percent for a total decline of 20.8 percent.”

Rep. Smith had questions about items from the monthly report Dr. Hinckley presents to the DUAB. He asked for information on the art from the closed Wirt-Emerson high school and on the agreement with executive director of the Gary Chamber of Commerce, Chuck Hughes, regarding the Chamber’s basketball tournament to be held at West Side.

Rep. Smith asked for details on the MOU (memorandum of understanding) with Roosevelt for special education services. “What was the outcome of the Indiana Dept. of Education’s visit to Glen Park and Williams Elementary schools?” Smith asked. Both schools are on the state’s academic watch list.

“I never heard of these teacher appreciation grants, what are they?” And, he asked for “clarification on projections for enrollment growth in relation to the relocation of administrative staff to West Side?”

Chairman Vincent responded, “Courtney Schaafsma, the DUAB executive director has been taking notes and will respond in writing to those questions.” Rep. Smith agreed.

Bethune came next from Rep. Smith. “I know it’s not on the agenda and I understand the matter has not been resolved, but we think it’s very important to get ahead on this.”

Rep. Smith said he had over 1000 signatures from Gary residents concerned about Bethune’s future, “and we can get more. SB567 allows a citizen petition process on actions taken by the emergency manager. It doesn’t say how many signatures. The legislature needs to clarify this.”

He criticized Dr. Hinckley’s message to the public as “ill-founded” that Bethune doesn’t generate dollars and that being a reason for its closure. “These are federal Title I dollars for children impacted by poverty and needing additional attention. It wasn’t meant to generate dollars.”

Last year, 163 of Bethune’s 263 students enrolled in Gary elementary schools, Smith said, therefore they did generate dollars.

On Dr. Hinckley’s intent to place the Bethune program in several elementary schools, Rep. Smith said the district had tried it before and it didn’t work. “Research shows that early learning centers produce better outcomes.”

Smith said there is very little focus in the emergency management team on early childhood education and they wouldn’t be competent to work on this with only K-12 licenses.

Smith also had concerns about the emergency manager using Title I dollars for consultants.

“My constituents feel helpless and hopeless with no one to listen to them,” said Rep. Smith. “This is a representative democracy. The emergency manager is our superintendent and the DUAB is our school board, another reason the legislature needs to revisit SB567.”

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