October 2, 2019

Outrage Over Conditions At Gary Schools Hits State Ed Board

Photo of a leaking roof inside the Westside Leadership Academy in Gary displayed Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, at the State Board of Education meeting. - State Board of Education/YouTube

Photo of a leaking roof inside the Westside Leadership Academy in Gary displayed Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, at the State Board of Education meeting.

State Board of Education/YouTube

Parents and others angrily called out the State Board of Education at its meeting today in Gary. They say despite the state’s intervention in local schools students face unsafe buildings, leaky roofs and even lack toilet paper at one school.

Parent LaRona Carter says students have been let down by elected state officials, various appointed boards and the companies hired with tax-dollars to manage the schools. Nine other parents and community members echoed Carter during public comments.

“When a takeover happens, that means I am going to do a better job than when you had it,” Carter told the board. “We are not seeing that.”

Tony Walker, a state board member from Gary, shared Carter’s concerns. Walker said he was troubled during a visit to schools Tuesday with Katie Jenner, Gov. Eric Holcomb’s senior education advisor. Walker says they saw “no fewer than 10 leaks” and mold in the library of the Westside Leadership Academy.

“It calls into question the state intervention in the city of Gary is, in fact, making it better,” Walker said. “Some great things are going on and I don’t want it to seem like this is a failed mission, but we do have some concerns here locally about the state engagement in Gary.”

Earlier this year millions of dollars in maintenance needs at Theodore Roosevelt College and Career Academy forced the school to no longer hold classes. Roosevelt students are now getting instruction at the Gary Area Career Center.

Walker described seeing students taught in “basically a garage” during his Tuesday visit.

“This is their school for the foreseeable future because their other building is uninhabitable for the foreseeable future,” Walker said, later adding: “It’s a disgrace, actually. We took over that school and since our involvement in that school, it's landed to now where kids go to school in a garage.”

The temperature was hot in the uncontrolled garage this week, Walker said, and winter will soon come.

Roosevelt Superintendent Marshall Emerson and Principal Joshua Batchelor agreed with Walker that the career center is not appropriate for learning.

In 2017 state lawmakers approved the takeover of the entire Gary Community School District due to massive debt. The state gave MGT Consulting Group, based in Tallahassee, Fla., a $6.2 million contract to serve as Gary's emergency manager.

The district is overseen by the state's Distressed Unit Appeal Board.

The company has since earned bonus payments connected to cutting debt and other improvements. The emergency manager has previously reported an ongoing deficit-reduction plan could erase around $20 million in annual debt.

In 2012 the state took over Roosevelt High School for academic failure. The school was severed from the Gary Community School District and New Jersey-based Edison Learning was given a contract to operate the school. In 2017, the company signed a joint operating agreement with Gary Schools.

Board member David Freitas told Ron Sandlin, the board’s senior director of school performance, to propose three plans to fix the Roosevelt issue at the November meeting.

Peter Morikis, the Gary Schools emergency manager, did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. In a statement, he said the current administration is "committed to not only turning our schools around academically but creating a culture of excellence in all that we do."

Morikis said improvements were made at West Side Leadership Academy  before the start of the 2019-20 school year.

"The library is open and operable with a small area in need of restoration. We are aware of the need for roof maintenance and are working to identify the most financially responsible and feasible approach for repair," he said. 

The State Board of Education's next meeting is Nov. 6.

Contact WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.

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