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Gary schools reports first increase in student enrollment in more than a decade
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Gary schools reports first increase in student enrollment in more than a decade

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food distribution at Gary West Side

Elizabeth Summers, center, distributes meals in April at West Side Leadership Academy. A fleet of Gary Community School Corp. buses delivered meals to two dozen locations across the city while students continued remote learning through the end of the 2019-20 school year.

GARY — Gary Community School Corp. managers outlined the district's anticipated budget for the coming year in a meeting Thursday morning with Indiana's Distressed Unit Appeal Board.

District leaders anticipate the school corporation will receive just over $82 million across four funds in 2021 should the school corporation's proposed 52-cent per $100 assessed valuation referendum pass in November.

Optimism across GCSC is growing with word Thursday that for the first time in more than a decade, the district is reporting an increase in average daily membership, an enrollment figure used by the state to determine per-student funding for K-12 students.

Gary average daily membership enrollment has declined by 7,000 students since 2009, according to Indiana Department of Education records presented Thursday.

Gary schools project slowing of decades-long enrollment losses in 2019-2020 student count

Gary school officials first reported a slowing of enrollment loss last October. This fall, school officials are reporting a total of 4,400 students in its average daily membership count compared to 4,376 the year before and 4,584 for 2019 — the first full year of MGT Consulting's engagement with the state takeover school corporation.

"That really is a phenomenal accomplishment," DUAB Chairman Justin McAdam said. "It's something we've been working towards since the beginning of this engagement and since the beginning of DUAB and MGT's involvement here."

If the district's tax increase does not pass, the school corporation will strike that fund from its 2021 budget, reducing expected total funding to about $73 million.

AFT president endorses Democratic candidates, Gary referendum

That total will be divided among the district's education, operation and debt service funds — two of which are budgeted to clear 2021 with positive balances.

Taking into account property tax collection rates, current balances and expected spending throughout the year, Gary's education fund is budgeted to end 2021 with $8.6 million and its debt service fund is expected to end the year with about $3.3 million. However, the school corporation expects its operations fund will finish 2021 with a negative balance of more than $10 million.

Gary Community School Corp., like districts across the county, will see a reduction in property tax-based funding this year after property tax caps took affect in Lake County. For Gary schools, this could affect funding to the tune of about $1.5 million.

Indiana leaders not planning education funding cut to weather COVID-19 revenue drop

And, though the governor gave assurances this spring that education funding would not be cut in the next year, school budget directors across Indiana are preparing for potential cuts in state funding due to the coronavirus pandemic. A 5% to 15% decrease could bring between $2 million and $6 million in losses to Gary's education fund, Gary schools' Chief Financial Officer Nicole Wolverton said.

"This year's budget really has been a challenge for every unit of government, especially school corporations," Wolverton said. "I don't think anyone anticipated that we would be in the middle of a pandemic and what that would really look like for us. It's been very difficult to predict what's happening tomorrow to the next few months to really what a year from now would look like financially."

The district has been able to redirect some expenses typically covered out of its operations fund through a newly created GCSC school improvement fund established through legislation the past spring for building repair and other capital project expenses.

Lawmakers approve funding for Gary school repairs, abandon casino food and beverage tax

If approved by voters, GCSC officials plan to reduce its operating losses by redirecting funds from its referendum collections, expected to bring in about $8.9 million annually over eight years. 

Gary school officials presented the estimate to DUAB after an initial public hearing earlier this month. The district is expected to adopt the 2021 budget in a meeting 8:30 a.m. Monday. The meeting will be streamed live on the school corporation's Facebook page and posted later to Youtube.

Public opinion on Gary's referendum is mixed. Of three community members who spoke during the Thursday morning DUAB meeting, one offered her support for the tax increase while two others raised concern not enough attention to resources in the past had been dedicated to financing the district's academic needs compared to operational costs.

Gary schools to create referendum oversight committee if proposed tax increase passes this November

"This makes me wonder, like many of our residents wonder, if we're already seeing these warning signs from last year, why should we hand them a blank check for the coming years?" community member Michaela Spangenburg said.

Gary school officials have consistently said the referendum, backed by several state and local leaders, is the fastest way to resolve operational debt and return the Gary Community School Corp. back to local control. Without it, school leaders may need to look to reduce operational costs in other ways.

"Without the referendum, I think we'll have a different conversation," Wolverton said. "It'll be a tough conversation that will include what kind of cuts and the future of Gary schools without that additional revenue source."

WATCH NOW: Critics claim to be silenced after Gary schools abruptly cuts short referendum discussion

Gary school officials will answer questions about its referendum in a virtual forum at 6 p.m. Thursday, organized by St. Timothy Community Church. The church will stream the virtual referendum forum live on its website at sttimothychurch.org and on its Facebook page.

 

See the district's proposed 2021 budget:

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

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