GARY | No one showed up to comment at a public hearing where the Gary School Board made a tough decision by cutting $23 million from its 2009 budget and eliminating nearly 500 positions.
Still, the board adopted a budget of $161.4 million, $122.9 million specifically for the general fund, which covers operating expenses, including salaries and benefits.
The positions that were eliminated also are connected to the closing of 12 schools in Gary, thus eliminating a duplication of services. Some of the positions were vacant. About 135 teachers will be laid off. The salaries for about 13 teachers will be moved from the general fund to Title II funds.
Part of the cuts will come from a proposal to close 12 schools and reconfigure others. It would include developing three themed high schools for students in seventh grade through high school, transforming Wirt High School into the new Emerson School for Visual and Performance Arts and transforming the Dunbar-Pulaski school building into an administrative office.
If approved, the board's new two-year facilities closing plan would begin in the fall of 2009-10 and the fall of 2010-11.
Meanwhile, the cuts approved Wednesday will enable the district to meet the $23 million deficit projected for next year as a result of state-mandated property tax caps.
As Gary school business manager Alesia Pritchett read off the budget categories, only a couple of School Board members questioned the cuts. There was a work study session earlier in the month where the cuts were detailed.
School Board member Marion Williams took exception with the district using capital projects money to pay for utilities rather than using it for improvements to the buildings. The state allows all school districts to use capital projects money to pay for escalating utility costs.
Pritchett said she budgeted $2 million in the general fund for repairs and renovations, and money from capital projects also can be used for repairs, skilled craftsmen and utilities. She said there is a chance the district can help pay for reconfiguring the buildings through the debt service fund.
After the hearing, Williams said the $161 million budget is a "significant" commitment to the students in Gary and to improving the quality of education for children.
"I am concerned about the graduation rate of our students," Williams said. "I am concerned about ISTEP-Plus scores. I am concerned about not using capital projects funds to improve our buildings, and I'm concerned about the presence of armed guards in our buildings. We're spending more than a $1 million a year on security where other schools spend much less."