School Board to lose all authority under new bill

    Legislation revised to put emergency manager in place

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    THE GARY SCHOOL BOARD may lose academic and financial control of the district if a bill passes the Indiana Assembly. (Photo by Erick Johnson).

    Crusader staff report

    The Gary School Board will lose all authority in the district to an emergency manager who will make financial and academic decisions to try to save the troubled school system, according to a revised bailout bill that was approved Monday by the House Ways and Means Committee.

    By a 19-3 vote, the committee revised Senate Bill 567 to impose tougher measures that disappointed State Sen. Eddie Melton, who co-sponsored the bill that was unanimously approved in the Senate in January. The original bill aimed to give the state financial control that would help Gary Schools pay down more than $100 million in debts.

    Now, the revised bill would give state officials both financial and academic control that would be so tight that the board would be prohibited from meeting once a month.

    Under the bill, a state-appointed emergency manager would have the authority to reduce districts and change its academic programs in order to balance the district’s budget and pay off its massive debt, which includes $30 million owed to the state.

    Additionally, the bill calls for the district superintendent to decide on what cuts to make with a chief financial officer and chief academic officer selected by the emergency manager. A four-person fiscal management board could also advise on the manager’s decision in a strictly advisory capacity. The members of the fiscal management board will be appointed by the school board, city mayor, state superintendent of public instruction and state Board of Education.

    Under the bill, only the state’s Distressed Unit Appeals Board (DUAB) would have the authority to override the decisions by the emergency manager.

    State Rep. Tim Brown (R-Crawfordsville), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the revised bill makes clear the roles of the emergency manager and give him or her the best chance of turning around Gary schools.

    The Republican-controlled House is expected to vote on the bill Thursday, and with the Gary school system on the brink of insolvency, lawmakers are under pressure to save the district and protect the future of thousands of students. Many students have been shuffled to other schools after financial woes forced the district to close many schools that, for years, were plagued by dwindling enrollment and crumbling infrastructure that had become too expensive to repair or maintain.

    On March 10, the DUAB granted the district $3.75 million to make payroll for the month. At a meeting with DUAB on March 31, state-appointed financial adviser Jack Martin said the district will be able to make payroll through April 15.

    However, a DUAB official said the district appeared to be running a $1.2 million deficit per month recently between revenue and expenditures.

    If the bill passes, sweeping cuts and layoffs could occur while the district is under state control.

    Melton is not pleased with the bill changes, including the Gary School Board’s loss of academic control. He argued that the state has had little success in the past with “turnaround” efforts with low-performing schools, particularly, Roosevelt College and Career Academy, which since 2012 received four consecutive “F” grades while under the state-approved EdisonLearning Corporation.

    The corporation recently signed a new five-year contract to manage Roosevelt with the guidance of Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt, who, last week went on a 30-day medical leave. If the bill passes, it’s not clear how the new legislation will affect the School Board’s role in EdisonLearning’s contract.

    One portion of Senate Bill 567 that still remains is the ban on new charter schools opening in Gary. Melton said Indiana needs to place a cap on the number of charter and voucher schools in Gary, which has the highest number of students in the state attending charter schools. Charter schools have been blamed for Gary school district’s dwindling enrollment and smaller state funding.

    If the revised bailout bill becomes law, things may get worse for Gary schools before they get better. The proposed tough measures in the revised bill may have been precipitated by the financial decisions the Gary School Board continues to make despite its dire situation. Last month, the Board voted in favor of hiring a public relations specialist after they were told not to. They later put the move on hold.

    Last week, the Board approved to spend $77,283 for programs in five schools, but those Title I funds come from the federal government.

     

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