GARY — Gary Community School Corp. leaders are claiming victory as vote counts reported early Wednesday morning tip in favor of the district’s $71.2 million referendum.

The Lake County Board of Elections reported just over 60% of Gary residents voted yes for the school corporation’s approximately 56 cents per $100 assessed value question, expected to expedite a return to local control in the state takeover district and bring raises to teachers unseen for more than a decade.

With 96% of Lake County precincts reported, unofficial results provided by the county election board Wednesday show 13,828 Gary residents voted yes in the referendum and 9,112 voted no.

"I'm so thankful to Gary voters for supporting more opportunities for our students and overdue raises for our teachers,” Gary Schools Manager Paige McNulty said in a news release. “Passing this referendum puts us on the fastest track to ending state control of our schools, and I couldn't be happier for the entire community.”

The referendum is expected to bring about $8.9 million annually to the financially distressed district over the next eight years.

District leaders have promised to direct the first $1 million to teachers raises.

The funding will also help Gary schools balance a $6 million deficit, as of December 2019 — a first step in bringing an end to state intervention.

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Under Indiana law, the Gary Community School Corp. must resolve this deficit and show balanced budgets for two years in order to be relieved of its distressed unit status.

“I am particularly pleased that our referendum received the steadfast support of our faith-based community and the support of the members of the Gary Common Council," McNulty said.

Gary referendum supporters — including Gary Teachers Union President GlenEva Dunham, State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, and former Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson — joined district leaders in watching the positive results roll in Tuesday night at J’s Breakfast Club.

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"This is important to the city," Taxpayers for the Gary Community School Corp. PAC President Jerome Nelson said Tuesday night. "This shows the residents having faith and support in us and that means a lot to me."

The referendum saw some opposition this fall, including by members of the district’s nonvoting advisory board.

Advisory Board President Robert Buggs, who ran unopposed for his seat this fall, brought a challenge of the Gary referendum to the county elections board in October after early voting had begun, claiming Gary school managers did not have the authority to bring the referendum in the district under state control.

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The board opted to wait until after the election to review the claims.

"Now that this referendum has passed, I would hope that they would provide what they say they will provide in a timely manner," Buggs said of Gary schools management. "If it accomplishes what it intended to do, I’m proud for the parents and the students. If not, I’m sad for the senior citizens who could lose their home because of this tax because they're locked in for eight years."

Gary school leaders have pledged to create a referendum oversight committee of business leaders, elected officials, labor representatives, parents, students and members of the faith-based community to report publicly on how referendum funds are collected and spent.

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School officials say the committee will be convened in advance of the district's first expected referendum collections in June.

“Today is a great day for Gary," McNulty said. "And, tomorrow will be even brighter for our students in the Gary schools."

Gallery: A look at referendums that have passed and failed in Northwest Indiana