INDIANAPOLIS — State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville, wants Gary residents to have more say in decisions made by the state-appointed emergency manager poised to take over operations of the financially distressed Gary Community School Corp.
Senate Bill 567, approved 77-19 Thursday by the Indiana House, allows the mayor and School Board to appoint representatives to a four-person fiscal management board that the emergency manager must occasionally consult, but is not obligated to follow its recommendations.
That's a far cry from Melton's original proposal to aid Gary schools that would have kept academics under the authority of the elected trustees, and given financial control to an emergency manager chosen and overseen by the School Board, mayor and state superintendent of public instruction.
Melton believes that without similar local input, a state-appointed emergency manager won't have a complete understanding of Gary, its children and the needs of its school district before making significant decisions with long-term ramifications.
"We definitely want folks to be familiar with the community, be familiar with our situation and how to handle it," Melton said. "It will shorten the learning curve."
He's hoping as the legislation is hammered into final form by a House-Senate conference committee over the next two weeks he can persuade lawmakers the emergency manager would benefit from having to listen to more Gary voices.
One way to do that, Melton said, would be to require the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board to appoint an emergency manager who lives in Gary, or at least Lake County, so long as one can be found.
"It's such an urgent issue that we need someone that's able to get in and get to work as soon as possible," Melton said.
Last week, state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, proposed the Republican-controlled House adopt that exact requirement as it was considering revisions to Senate Bill 567.
Brown's amendment was rejected, 63-29, on a party-line vote.
However, Brown did succeed in mandating the emergency manager provide notice to the mayor before selling any school corporation assets in an effort to reduce the district's approximately $8 million annual operating deficit and $100 million debt burden.
Aside from that limitation, the legislation would sideline the elected School Board and empower the emergency manager to act unilaterally to reduce district expenses and alter its academic program with an overriding goal of achieving a balanced budget.
A chief financial officer and a chief academic officer selected by the emergency manager, along with the district's superintendent, would help decide what cuts to make.
But only the Distressed Unit Appeals Board would have the authority to override a decision made by the emergency manager.
Melton said given the state's inability, so far, to pull up the A-F ratings of most of the individual schools it has taken over academically, including Gary's Roosevelt College and Career Academy, he's not confident that a state academic and financial takeover will fare any better.
"I know there have been some improvements in a lot of the schools in terms of the climate, the culture, test scores and things of that nature," Melton said. "I don't think the state should be in the business of taking over entire school districts."
Nevertheless, Melton acknowledged that he believes the primary sponsors of the Gary takeover legislation — state Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and state Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville — "want the best for the children and the community."
"We all have different perspectives on how we get there," Melton said.