The most dramatic action by the recently concluded General Assembly wasn’t road funding or tighter restrictions on abortion.

No, it was the state takeover of the Gary Community School Corp. It’s the first time the state has seized control of a local school district.

And it was long overdue. The schools are $100 million in debt and wandering aimlessly in search of solutions to a multitude of problems that are impacting the system’s 5,000 students.

The takeover legislation was sponsored by Sen. Eddie Melton, who just replaced retiring Sen. Earline Rogers, who worked tirelessly to save the school corporation for which she once worked.

Gary shouldn’t have gotten into this education mess. But a series of inept, self-serving school boards compounded a mounting problem.

Those boards, for instance, paid themselves for attending committee meetings, unlike what boards do on any level. And they sure did have meetings.

Some board members also wrapped extensive vacations around school conferences far from Gary at the expense of the taxpayer.

But Gary’s school problems started long ago. As the city itself goes, so do the schools.

Gary once had 175,000 people and more than enough schools to support that population. It was one of the finest school systems in the country and has the awards to prove it.

Some 40 years ago, things began to change in Gary. Segregation — which had been the accepted norm since the city’s founding — ended.

The population plummeted as whites fled the city, and many blacks soon joined the flight.

As the population declined, city government continued operating as if no one had ever departed. And the city quickly found itself in financial distress.

The schools, too, seemed oblivious to the loss of students.

For the longest time, the number of schools, teachers and handsomely paid administrators stayed the same as the population was declining to fewer than 80,000 people.

When the tax base is cut in half and the overhead stays the same, the financial situation becomes a mess. As the money dried up, school buildings were ignored and fell into disrepair.

Adding to the problem was the advent of charter schools. Because the quality of Gary schools had declined, students fled in droves.

And now, with $100 million in debt, it has come to the state to do what Gary wouldn’t.

That’s embarrassing and sad — but necessary.

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

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