RICH JAMES: East Chicago school system is changing

2013-07-07T00:00:00Z RICH JAMES: East Chicago school system is changingBy Rich James nwitimes.com
July 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

When he was running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2007, U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh told me it was like building a sand castle one grain of sand at a time.

I have to think East Chicago School Board President Jesse Gomez and his mates feel the same about straightening out the city’s school system.

Gomez and his eight colleagues were elected in November 2012 and took office in January.

It is the first elected school board in city history. Candidates ran without party labels in what might be the most political city in the state.

After six months on the job, Gomez said the task is even more complex than he anticipated.

One has to remember the elected school board is taking over one of the most troubled school districts in Indiana.

For almost three decades, the schools were a dumping ground for political power broker Tom Cappas, who had an iron grip on the system.

I can remember years back that every school in the city had an athletic director. I’m not sure why except the positions were places to put Cappas’ minions.

Besides the unneeded athletic directors, the schools were awash with unnecessary support staff, especially in a city of 30,000.

While Cappas and company were becoming politically stronger through their control of the school system, money continued to flow out of the classroom and into patronage.

And as there was less money available for classroom instruction, the test scores plummeted.

It was a pathetic sight. Politics at its worst.

The new school board seems bent on righting what was wrong.

They have the freedom to do it. They answer to the voters, not politicians.

Just last week, for example, they hired William Gall as the district’s interim superintendent to fill in for Mike Harding, who is on family medical leave.

Gall is a career educator, who retired as superintendent in Griffith. He now is a consultant with Educational Service Co. They don’t come much better than Gall.

Prior to the elected board, I shudder to think who would have been named the interim boss.

The school board has a nonrenewal list for a host of administrators.

Many of those on the list understand what’s going on – that it’s not business as usual – and are resigning. That’s virtually unheard of in East Chicago, where firings are often deemed political and end up jamming the courts.

When he was elected, Gomez said, “Hopefully things will be kept professional, and we as a group can address major school issues, such as the wise use of resources for the benefit of the students.”

As novel as that might sound for East Chicago, it seems to be working.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjames@219.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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