GARY — More than 150 people came out Monday to ask questions about the state takeover of the Gary Community School Corp.
State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville, and other members of the Gary legislative delegation hosted the meeting to better explain Senate Enrolled Act 567.
“SEA 567 is an act that addresses the fiscal, academic and administrative issues that the Gary Community School Corporation has been facing for many years,” Melton said. “Myself, along with other legislators from and around Gary, want to ensure that the public has the opportunity to hear firsthand the details within this bill and have an opportunity to ask any questions they may have regarding the future of the district.”
This is the first time in the state's history Indiana has chosen to take over a school district. The legislation addresses issues in Gary and the Muncie Community School Corp. in Muncie.
The goal of the new law is to finally resolve the school corporation's late vendor payments, delayed payrolls, annual operating deficit and $101 million debt burden.
The state-appointed emergency fiscal manager will supersede the elected School Board for up to five years.
Melton went through the legislation point by point. He also said the school district will have a Fiscal Management Board, with members appointed by the school trustees, Gary mayor and state superintendent of public instruction. That board will advise the emergency manager but his or her decisions are only subject to approval by the Distressed Unit Appeals Board.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who was on hand for the meeting, said she appointed retired Gary Sen. Earline Rogers, who is an experienced educator and legislator.
Rogers said she welcomed state leaders being in Gary, and seeing the expertise in the city.
Members of the audience had dozens of questions. The questions included who will pay for the emergency manager and chief academic officer, will salaries be cut, will schools be closed, what will be the structure of the administration and will the school superintendent remain in office.
Gary state Rep. Vernon Smith collected questions written on a card, and said the delegation of legislators would attack some of the questions but could not answer many of them.
Smith said there are several other school districts around the state with financial problems and most are going back to their community with a referendum question and asking taxpayers to pay more money to support the operating budget or school construction.
The meeting was basically held to prepare the public for another meeting scheduled for May 15, hosted by the Distressed Unit Appeals Board in Gary. Smith said those questions would be presented to members of DUAB next week who would better be able to answer them.
It is not clear if that meeting will be held at West Side Leadership Academy or the Gary Career Center.
Legislators told the public there had been some discussion at the state level to dissolve the Gary school corporation or merge it with another nearby corporation but local legislators fought against that.
"The initial plan was to divide us into fifths, and we heard that five school districts were contacted — Hammond, East Chicago, Merrillville, Lake Station and Lake Ridge," Smith said.
"Some couldn't take another 1,000 kids into their districts and others didn't want us," Smith said.
Gary state Rep. Charlie Brown told the audience, "We're our own worst enemy. We have to stop going outside of the city and saying bad things about Gary and the schools."