By Jackie Harris, The 411 News
Gary schools emergency manager Dr. Peggy Hinckley verified Friday morning what many on the street expected would be the decision on closing either West Side Leadership Academy or Wirt-Emerson Visual & Performing Arts at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
Dr. Hinckley’s recommendation to shutter Wirt-Emerson instead of West Side was among several agenda items at Friday’s presentation to the Distressed Unit Appeal Board focusing on steps the emergency manager will use to return the school district to financial stability.
Learning of the decision, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said, “While I join members of the community in their disappointment in hearing this recommendation, it does not come as a surprise.”
“It underscores the number of difficult decisions that face the Gary Community School Corporation. It is also reflective of the financial challenges that face our community,” the mayor said. “If the recommendation is accepted, I am hoping that the exemplary programming for the visual and performing arts will be maintained in the new location.”
Moving Wirt-Emerson’s students in grades 9-12 to West Side is among the cost reductions the emergency manager says will help the district close a $1.5 million monthly deficit that amounts to $18 million yearly, much of it being paid from the state’s treasury. Also recommended was the closure of the district’s administration building and moving it to West Side.
West Side fits better in Dr. Hinckley’s plan for a single comprehensive high school. She cited West Side’s larger building capacity, its sports fields, and better physical shape.
“The student population density is in the city’s western, Midtown, and Glen Park communities,” Dr. Hinckley said, “not on the east side.” Transportation aspects also favored West Side high school.
Dr. Hinckley also proposed converting Bailly, a K-8 school, into the district’s new middle school for students in grades 6-8. Currently, students in those grades are spread across eight schools including Wirt, a 6-12 school. Bailly will have a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) focus.
The DUAB did not take any actions on the emergency manager’s building closures and grade reconfiguration recommendations. DUAB executive director Courtney Schaafsma said the agency will announce its decisions in March.
Several highlights came from Eric Parish, who heads the district’s financial management team. “We are now current with NIPSCO, the district’s third largest expense behind payroll and employee benefits. This time last year, we were several million dollars behind on payments to our transportation provider. We are now current.”
And important to school personnel, Parish said, the district has returned to direct deposit for payroll.