Top Statehouse Democrats blast plan to further diminish role of Gary school board

Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, right, speaks to reporters last week about his opposition to House-approved legislation that would further diminish the role of the already powerless elected trustees of the Gary Community School Corp. House Democratic Leader Terry Goodin, D-Austin, left, also condemned the proposal.

Dan Carden, The Times

INDIANAPOLIS — The top Democrats in the Indiana General Assembly are condemning House-approved legislation that further minimizes the role of the already powerless elected trustees of the Gary Community School Corp.

House Democratic Leader Terry Goodin, D-Austin, and Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, last week declared House Bill 1315 is "a smack in the face of democracy."

The proposal, which is awaiting action by the Senate, makes the Gary school board merely an advisory committee to the district's state-appointed emergency manager, and limits the board to four public meetings a year.

It also reaffirms that emergency manager Peggy Hinckley exercises all the school board's former powers and requires Hinckley hold a monthly public forum to keep Gary residents apprised of what's happening in their school district.

Goodin said it's wrong for the Legislature to deprive the Gary school board of meaningful input on key decisions being made about the opening and closing of schools, the hiring and firing of teachers and the future of education generally in the community.

"The citizenry of Gary, the folks who live in the Gary School Corp., elected those folks to represent them, and they still have confidence in those folks to at least have a say in what goes on," said Goodin, who is superintendent of Crothersville Community Schools when he's not working at the Statehouse.

"There shouldn't be a totalitarian government come in and take over the school corporation. There still should be say at the local level."

Blame game

State lawmakers last year decided to supplant the Gary school trustees with an emergency manager after the school board repeatedly overspent its revenue and racked up more than $100 million in debt.

Goodin insisted the Gary school board wasn't entirely to blame for the district's financial failings.

He said a combination of reduced state education funding, state-imposed property tax caps, an increasing number of charter schools in Gary and the city's shrinking population all had a hand in creating an unsustainable situation.

"There's reasons why these school corporations seem to fall off the cliff," Goodin said. "The folks on that school board now are not those folks that pushed the corporation to the brink of bankruptcy."  

He also observed that the Republican supermajorities in the Indiana House and Senate like to say they support local government, but in this case, "It seems like all they want to do is expand the reach of big government by having the state come in and take over local governments."

"It doesn't make sense at all. ... We have to respect democracy, and we have to let those folks at least have a say in what goes on in their school corporation."

No voice

Lanane has a personal stake in the outcome of the debate as his east-central Indiana Senate district includes Muncie Community Schools, the other Hoosier school district to be taken over last year by the state.

He believes that instead of the current punitive takeover approach, local school districts in financial distress should be encouraged to identify their needs so the state then can work cooperatively with local leaders to find ways of meeting them.

"It seems to me the message is being sent that we don't trust local communities to resolve their own problems, albeit perhaps with the assistance of the state," Lanane said. "The state has to realize there is some responsibility on their part here with the policies we have fashioned over the years.

"As the bill goes on, I'm hoping we can find a way that there's more community involvement, more community representation in the process and ultimately in the product that comes out as well."

Region lawmakers, including state Reps. Charlie Brown, D-Gary; Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago; and Vernon Smith, D-Gary, made essentially the same arguments — to no avail — prior to the legislation advancing out of the House on Feb. 1 on a 64-27 vote.

"The citizens of my district are incensed," Smith said. "My people feel like they have no voice now."

Takeover defender

But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, defended the proposal as a very much needed measure that looks out for the financial interests of Gary, Muncie and Indiana citizens.

"This was a voter and taxpayer protection measure in these two communities," Bosma said. "Unfortunately, the local officials have not been able to be responsible in this regard, and it's incumbent on the state to step in."

Bosma said Muncie school officials in recent years borrowed $10 million, supposedly for capital projects, and instead spent that money on operating costs, which he said points to "serious mismanagement" and "possibly illegal activity."

The Gary schools emergency manager likewise said "total disarray" was the only way to describe the condition of the district's finances when she took over on Aug. 1.

"When I came there, the HR (Human Resources) Department did not have control of payroll or benefits. They were under someone else," Hinckley said. "We had no internal controls for anything, no payroll controls, no processes."

While Bosma acknowledged the remedy of a state takeover was extraordinary, he said it nevertheless is a legitimate tool because "school boards are creatures of statute for which the state is responsible."

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.