Bead Town exhibit opens in Gary

Gary Schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt addresses the opening of the Bead Town Gary exhibit.

John J. Watkins, The Times

GARY — Gary schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt will resign from the troubled school district effective Feb. 2.

Pruitt's contract would have ended June 30, 2019.

Pruitt's announcement comes after audit last week said Pruitt needs to repay a $30,000 bonus.

"For the remainder of my time spent with GCSC, I will serve as an administrative resource for the emergency manager and her team," she said.

"I am committed to a smooth and productive transition, continuing to address the needs of the school system and provide the best possible education for the students of the Gary schools."

The Gary Community School Corp. is the first school district to be taken over by the state due to amassing more than $100 million in debt and its poor academic status. As a result, it is under the authority of the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board.

Senate Enrolled Act 567 required DUAB to appoint an emergency manager. DUAB appointed longtime educator Peggy Hinckley, a Gary native who now lives in Schererville, as the emergency manager, along with MGT Consulting.

The law gives Hinckley near-total authority to implement academic and financial changes, negotiate contracts and run the Gary school district, subject only to review by a local advisory board and DUAB oversight.

Pruitt, along with the elected trustees of the Gary Community School Corp., have no official say in decisions made by the emergency manager.

Hinckley said Friday, "We wish her well as she moves on from the Gary Community School Corp."

Asked if a new superintendent would be appointed, Hinckley said, "In my initial conversation with DUAB, we will not be posting for a superintendent in the immediate future."

Pruitt's record as superintendent

Pruitt, 54, became superintendent July 1, 2012, and inherited the financial and academic challenges. The Indiana Department of Education has graded the district an F for several years, although some schools in the district continue to excel.

Although the school corporation grade is under appeal at the department, Pruitt said it has moved up to a D under her leadership.

She said her accomplishments include increasing the graduation rate by 25 percent in two years. She said the overall high school rate moved to 85.7 percent from 60.3 percent. She said over four years, the literacy rate for third-graders improved by 19 percent, going to 87.5 percent from 68.7 percent.

Pruitt said under her reign the percentage of students going to college, work or the military improved, and the special education department, which was out of compliance, is now mostly compliant. Pruitt said suspensions and expulsions also have been significantly reduced.

State report asks Pruitt to repay bonus

A special audit released by the Indiana State Board of Accounts last week said Pruitt needs to repay a $30,000 bonus she received. The audit findings were referred to the Lake County Prosecutor and the Indiana Attorney General's Office.

The audit report said Pruitt's contract provided for "Growth Incentive Plan and Bonus to be agreed upon by the board and the superintendent." But the audit states no documentation was provided showing that the board agreed on or approved the amounts or the timing of the payments.

Pruitt has hired Merrillville attorney Russell Brown to represent her.

Brown said Friday, "We are still investigating, but based on the information and documents that we have and the documents we believe to be forthcoming, the payment was authorized in accordance with her contract and the school board. We will be following up with the attorney general's office once we have completed our investigation."

Gary school board President Rosie Washington said Friday that Pruitt deserved the bonus.

"People keep saying $30,000, but it was actually $10,000 that should have been paid to her each year over a three-year contract period," Washington said. "The public also really needs to know that the majority of that money came back to the district.

"The superintendent used it to undergird programs for our children. She reinvested much of that bonus to the educational needs of the children in Gary."

Pruitt earns a base salary of $136,000 per year plus $1,000 per month as compensation for the business use of her vehicle and another $18,500 was paid into an annual annuity payment for her 403(b) plan. However, last's year $30,000 bonus paid in March upped her salary for 2016 to $178,500. That's according to information from the Gary Community School Corp.'s business office.

Washington said, "Dr. Pruitt's leaving the Gary schools is a loss to the district. She has served as an untraditional superintendent in as much as she reached out to external partners to enrich this district financially, physically and educationally."

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Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.