By Erick Johnson
It’s an important piece of Black history that’s now a deteriorating relic of Gary’s past. For the last five months, Gary’s storied Roosevelt College and Career Academy has been closed, after its heating system broke down in February. Since then, the building has been in a state of neglect with broken windows, grass as high as three feet and debris in its parking lot.
An official in charge of overseeing the repairs of Roosevelt’s heating system failed to answer questions about the status of the maintenance work from a Crusader reporter; she hung up not once, but twice. When the Crusader turned to other officials for answers, no one responded. When two Crusader reporters requested a tour of Roosevelt to see the repairs, again no response.
But when the Crusader filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to get some answers about a basic boiler repair and busted pipes at Roosevelt, Gary’s emergency manager, the most powerful official overseeing the school district, got a lawyer to respond.
It’s a story that has many questions, but state officials aren’t giving answers.
What repairs have been made on Roosevelt since it closed in February? Or were there any repairs made to the building at all, as school officials decided to keep Roosevelt closed for another year and hold classes at the Gary Career Center?
They are serious unanswered questions, answering concerns about the future of a national landmark that continues to deteriorate while in the hands of state officials, who so far have failed to give an account of repairs to damage that will keep the building closed for nearly two years.
But there is growing concern that the damage to Roosevelt will be used as justification by school officials to slowly and secretly close the school for good to avoid community outcry or public scrutiny.
During the time the building has been closed, no public community meetings updating parents, alumni and residents on the repairs have been held. Calls from concerned alumni and residents have allegedly gone unanswered. Emails and calls from the Crusader to Emergency Manager Peter Morikis went unreturned.
To this day, there is no concrete evidence that shows any repairs have been made to the building’s heating system.
As the vacant building continues to deteriorate while state officials avoid questions about repairs, proud and loyal Roosevelt alumni remain on edge. Some vowed to fight and are taking steps to save the historic building.
Roosevelt has had a history of boiler problems even as it remained under financial and academic state control. In 2016, the state gave money to fix the boiler, but when it broke, many students walked out in protest saying that the money to fix the building’s heating problem was not enough.
But on February 14, Roosevelt’s 568 students were moved to the Gary Career Center after they were forced to stay home when the boiler system broke down, leaving Roosevelt without heat. John May, a 2014 Roosevelt graduate told a television reporter that “there were days when we were moving to different sections of the building because one time one side will work, one time a different side didn’t work.”
Recently, Marshall Emerson, superintendent of EdisonLearning, the firm that manages Roosevelt’s curriculum, said in a letter that Roosevelt students at the Career Center will be there for another year. He said the repairs to the heating system were “extensive” but did not give any other details.
What repairs have been made since then, and why did EdisonLearning make comments on a problem that is the responsibility of the emergency manger or the school district?
On June 1, a Crusader reporter made a casual trip to the school. The reporter found several broken windows that exposed abandoned, poorly maintained classrooms to the elements. The grass on the front lawn of the campus was nearly three feet high. Sidewalks are crumbling. Growing rust blankets the metal flagpole. Another Crusader reporter took pictures of a bed mattress and a recliner in the back parking lot.
The condition of the building on the outside led the Crusader to wonder about the repairs on Roosevelt’s interior.
That’s when the Crusader on Tuesday, June 11 emailed several questions to Nakia Douglas, deputy superintendent of the Gary Community School Corporation, who oversees the repairs that are said to be needed at Roosevelt. The questions asked for a status update on the ongoing repairs at Roosevelt and details of how big the damage was to the boiler and pipes. The Crusader also asked how many workers were making the repairs and the estimated costs to correct the problem.
More than a week has passed, and those questions still remained unanswered.
All week the Crusader followed up with Douglas, who during two phone conversations said she was busy with other projects and that she will “try” to answer questions. On Thursday, June 13 during a brief conversation, Douglas said that “it’s our intention to keep Roosevelt open and address its problems.” She said she would respond to the specific questions the Crusader emailed to her. She never did.
The next day, the Crusader called Douglas to ask about the questions. When Douglas denied promising to respond to the questions, the Crusader reporter expressed concerns about the delays. That’s when Douglas raised her voice and told the Crusader that she has other projects to do, and hung up the phone. When the Crusader called her again, she said, “You keep calling my phone and you’ll hear from my attorney for harassment. Goodbye.”
The Crusader then forwarded the unanswered questions to Morikis, who did not respond to the questions either.
On Monday, June 17, the Crusader filed a FOIA request for financial and maintenance records showing the cost of heating repairs at Roosevelt. By law, Morikis had seven days to respond. But instead he got an attorney, Michael Tolbert, who released a statement to the Crusader on Wednesday, June 19. It reads,“We acknowledge your request and will provide you with a response within a reasonable time under Indiana’s Public Records Act. I must inform you that the Act imposes a duty on persons requesting documents to describe them with reasonable particularity. It does not require the agency to search unspecified categories of documents or general sources for information that may be responsive to a general request. The Act also does not impose a duty on our agency to provide or create information or answers to questions not present in existing documents that the agency may possess, but rather to provide documents you have specifically requested.”
Tolbert is working to provide documents to meet the Crusader’s request.
Questions remain as to why Morikis would get an attorney, to respond to basic questions about repairs to a boiler and heating system?
In a story in last week’s Crusader another news outlet, the Gary 411, reported that it left a message for Morikis, but the call was not returned.
As Gary’s emergency manager, Morikis is the sole authority to make financial and academic decisions about Gary’s schools after the state took full control of the district in 2017, following years of failing grades on the state’s accountability tests and mounting debts of over $100 million.
There were other requests from the Crusader about the repairs.
Through Morikis’ spokesperson, Chelsea Whittington, the Crusader requested a tour of Roosevelt to view the repairs. The Crusader also asked for photographs of work that has been done on the boiler or heating system. None of the requests were granted by press time Wednesday.
Last month at a meeting at Trine University in Angola, Indiana, Tony Walker a member of Indiana’s Board of Education, said Roosevelt’s historic building needs “millions of dollars’ worth of repairs” and repairing them “doesn’t make academic or financial sense to me.”
Walker’s comments about the repairs of the building were the most candid yet from any Indiana official. The comments have added more concerns about Roosevelt among alumni, who along with parents and residents said they were never given a community meeting on the repairs at Roosevelt.
One Roosevelt alumna, Janice Ford, said two meetings were status meetings on the repairs that were scheduled this year, but were canceled without explanation.
“We want answers,” Ford said. “No one is saying anything.”
Another Roosevelt alumna, Judith Leek Mead, said “Every time I asked about the report, I was cut off. They’re letting it die. They’re not doing anything to Roosevelt.”
Retired state Senator Earline Rogers, another Roosevelt alumna, said she did not know anything about the status of the repairs.
“I’m very interested and committed in making sure that the building is being used,” Rogers said. “I’d lay in front of a steamroller before they let it go.”
Rogers and other Roosevelt alumni plan to attend a July 16 meeting involving Gary’s emergency manager and the school board. The meeting is at 6 p.m. at the Gary Career Center. Ford is organizing a march before the meeting.
Built in 1923, Roosevelt was built as the only school for Blacks at a time when Gary was largely white and segregated. Future doctors, lawyers, politicians, entertainers and sports figures walked the halls of Roosevelt before they established successful careers.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, boxer Charles Adkins, singer Reebie Jackson, and the late funeral home heir Guy & Allen are among the many distinguished Roosevelt alumni. Named after Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president, the school was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.
State Senator Eddie Melton released a statement, saying “The continued facility issues that Roosevelt High School continues to face are disheartening. For years, our children at Roosevelt have been forced to deal with extreme weather conditions and frequent relocations. Since Roosevelt and the Gary Community School Corporation are managed by the State of Indiana, it is imperative that we demand that this issue be addressed.”
Steve Mays, president of the Gary chapter of the NAACP, said, “The problems at Roosevelt is just a small part of the puzzle. There’s a lack of transparency on the state level. These people making the decisions don’t live here. Their kids don’t go to these schools. They don’t care.”