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5/8/2018 7:27:00 AM
Indiana House legislative council approves school takeover bill

Scott L. Miley, Herald Bulletin CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS -- Muncie schools will likely be governed by a Ball State University-appointed board and Gary schools by an advisory board, both anticipated actions for a special session of the Indiana General Assembly on May 14.

Legislation making those controversial changes was part of House Bill 1315, one of five bills passed by the Legislative Council on Monday. The bills now move to both chambers for consideration during the May 14 special legislative session, which holds a Republican super-majority. Democrats have generally voted against the schools proposal.

Both financially strapped school districts have been deemed distressed units by the state. The districts have also seen significant decreases in enrollment. For example, about 1,600 school-aged youth living in Muncie do not attend Muncie public schools. 

The changes proposed for Muncie are backed by Ball State President Geoffrey Mearns and, reportedly, four of five members of the Muncie school board, including President Debbie Feick and board member Kathy Carey.

"My constituents believe that they have nothing to lose if Ball State takes over," Carey told legislators. "Do we have some concerns about this bill? Yes. My constituents and I are concerned that there is no end date or sundown to this bill. We are concerned about not getting to vote for candidates that we believe will represent us and our interests."

The plan has been challenged in part by teachers who question whether collective bargaining will be left for negotiation.

"Those are the only two distressed units in the state right now. There's a reason why they're being treated differently because of fiscal mismanagement in both districts," said Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

"There's a reason this legislature has finally stepped in and is acting after repeatedly trying to work with the boards to get the problems rectified," Long said. 

Under the legislation, Ball State would appoint a seven-member panel to operate Muncie schools. Four of the members would be required to live in the school district. Opponents have argued that Muncie parents would lose a voting voice under that scenario.

"I think having all seven members, if they're going to be appointed, they should live in our school district," said Jason Donati, a Muncie school board member who has been a vocal dissenter of the bill.

During Monday's three-and-a-half hour meeting of the legislator council, there was no testimony in support of the Gary changes. Some opponents of the Gary plan say it is aimed at scolding former board members and school leaders.

"This body should not take actions based on efforts to either punish or exact a pound of flesh because of past mistakes. I would hope that you would give us license to move forward, as we have every intention of doing," Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said.

Initially, the 16-member legislative council was not scheduled to hear testimony on bills during a meeting that was essentially setting the ground rules for May 14. However, testimony was allowed on House Bill 1315 after Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, asked Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianaolis, to hear public comments on the proposal.

Related Stories:
• Indiana General Assembly special session: Four critical bills, one day - May 14

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