Indiana lawmakers are poised to extend state control of the Gary Community School district for four more years. If the plan goes forward, Gary residents would be without local control of schools for several more years.
The latest bipartisan proposal, which the House approved Monday, would create a board specifically tasked with managing the Gary district. The majority of the board members, however, would be appointed by the state education secretary, keeping oversight of the local schools firmly in the hands of state leaders.
Bill sponsor Rep. Jeff Thompson (R-Lizton) had said an appointed board is part of securing the state’s investment in Gary schools during the intervention. Monday, he stressed it is vital to appoint “the right people” as to not create opposing factions on the board.
“I'm convinced the right five people that want to make this a success, and want to make the future of the Gary School Corporation very positive, will do it,” Thompson said. “And it only takes one or two that has the mindset — ‘it’s us and them.’ I am concerned.”
The education secretary would appoint three of the five board members, including one member from Gary and one from Lake County. Under the latest version of the bill, the Gary mayor and city council would each appoint one local citizen to the board.
Gary residents and Democratic lawmakers have pushed back against the bill throughout the process. They say it’s time to return control of the Gary schools to the city by establishing a locally elected school board.
Before the vote Monday, Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary) said he spent more time on the bill than any legislation in his 33-year career at the Statehouse. He said Gary citizens did not get what they wanted — an elected school board.
Yet, Smith urged lawmakers to pass the bill, but said he would vote against it.
“I don't believe this is really a true form of local control. I think it's just a modified version of state control,” he said. “But it's what's being offered.”
Rep. Earl Harris Jr. (D-East Chicago), echoed some of Smith’s concerns and said he hopes in the following years the legislature could establish an elected school board.
“It's not 100 percent of what we want,” Harris said. “But when you look at where we were and where we are now, it's something that you know … at least I feel like I can vote for it.”
Senate Bill 327 passed the House 94-4. The bill returns to the Senate for further consideration.
The new appointed board would take over management from the Distressed Unit Appeals Board, a state oversight body that currently controls the district. DUAB would hand over control of the district to the new board in July 2024 if the schools are no longer considered financially distressed.
The district would continue to be run by the Florida-based company MGT, which has a contract with DUAB through 2024.
The Gary school system was taken over in 2017 because it was insolvent, with a $22 million operating deficit and more than $100 million in long-term debt. The Gary schools are far more financially stable now than prior to the takeover. After painful cuts, including closing schools, and an influx of local, state and federal money, the district reported a small surplus last year.
But the takeover has failed on other fronts. Enrollment has continued to dwindle, falling about 30 percent since 2017. And the state managers concede that the schools have rock bottom academic results. Just 2 percent of elementary and middle school students passed the math and reading sections of the state ILEARN exam last year, and 72 percent of high schoolers graduated in 2022.
As the state gets closer to ending its control of the district, leaders seem to have conceded that they will not make notable academic gains.
"We have not made the progress that I think all of us would like to see in Gary Community Schools and for the children of Gary on academics," DUAB chair Justin McAdam told Ways & Means at a meeting March 15. “Some of that is driven by the challenges that were faced in COVID.”
Despite the significant financial and administrative improvements made by MGT, vocal community members and elected Democratic officials want the company removed as manager of the district.
"I just have a major concern that that company continues to be the company that manages the school district, because all the schools are failing,” said Rep. Cherrish Pryor (D-Indianapolis) at the Ways & Means hearing last week. “They made it financially solvent, but if all the schools are failing — we're failing the kids."
Several residents of Gary, including persistent critics of state control, spoke against the takeover at a hearing of the Ways & Means Committee last month. One of them was Samuel Coleman, who graduated from Gary’s West Side Leadership Academy last year.
“We should be able to be led by someone that we know, someone that we trust,” Coleman said, “rather than having someone that we don’t know, someone that isn’t inside of the community, that doesn’t know the culture of the community, that isn’t truly there to witness what is happening.”
WFYI education editor Eric Weddle contributed to this story.