By David Denson, Gary Crusader
The Indiana State Senate on Wednesday, February 16 unanimously approved legislation aimed at helping the Gary Community School Corporation climb out of its financial hole.
Senate Bill 567, sponsored by Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley and Sen. Eddie Melton, cleared the Senate 49-0.
The decision is the first big achievement for Melton, a political rookie who was elected to fill the shoes of former State Senator Earline Rogers in 2016. A Roosevelt graduate, Melton has been a big supporter of Gary schools in recent years.
The legislation gives financial control of the Gary Community School Corporation to a state controlled Fiscal Management Board for a five-year period.
A state appointed emergency manager would take over managing the school system’s finances and their decisions will be approved by the Distressed Unit Appeals Board (DUAB).
The measure also calls for the appointment of a chief financial officer to assist with the duties of the emergency manager.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, the Gary School Board, along with the state superintendent of public instruction will each select a representative to serve on the board in an advisory capacity.
If the corporation successfully meet certain goals, the DUAB would have the authority to provide grants to the corporation, forgive outstanding state loans, and provide zero interest loans.
The legislation seeks to address problems the financially troubled school system has faced for years. The corporation has been plagued with many problems. Student enrollment is way down at 6,480, while revenue from property taxes continue to decline. There are also state mandated property tax caps and a change in the school funding formula.
Commenting on the declining enrollment Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt said, “As the test scores drop, that equals declining enrollment, which also equals economic decline because no one wants to attend an F school.”
State projections indicate that the corporation will be in the red for fiscal years 2017 and 2018.
The year following the implementation of the tax cap the school corporation took a drastic hit to its annual budget.
Last year the state appointed financial consultant Jack Martin warned that the school corporation’s deficit was between $35 to $40 million, but state estimates put the total debt at $90 million.
However, recent state estimates indicate the debt may reach $101 million by July of this year.
Many believe the increase of charter schools has damaged student enrollment of Gary’s public school system. Currently, Gary rates second in the state with the number of charter schools in the city. Melton has legislation pending that would cut down the number of charter schools in the city.
Kenely, who met last year with Mayor Freeman-Wilson, former State Senator Earline Rogers and Melton to begin talking about crafting a plan to bailout the Gary School Corporation, said some progress has been made but they have a long way to go. The legislation advances to the House of Representatives where Rep. Tim Brown is the sponsor and Rep. Charlie Brown and Rep. Vernon Smith are co-sponsors.