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HAMMOND — The superintendent of the School City of Hammond is recommending the closure of Gavit and Clark middle/high schools within the next two years, as construction progresses on a new, unnamed Hammond school building. 

Superintendent Scott Miller presented his plan to a full district board room Tuesday night, where he said the schools, if the plan is approved, would be closed by the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

The closures, Miller said, could save the district nearly $36 million over the next five years.

"It's hard for us to compete right now having four campuses," Miller said. "This is the result of declining enrollment and 10 straight years of policies that hurt urban education in Indiana."

2 high schools

The new Hammond school under construction behind the current Hammond High School on Calumet Avenue is expected to cost around $115 million. The project is predominantly being funded through a tax increase, supported by Hammond residents in a November 2017 referendum

Under Miller's recommendation, the 340,000-square-foot facility, along with the existing Morton High School, would house 1,850 students.

Scott and Eggers middle schools would remain open and serve seventh and eighth grade students, while sixth grade would be moved into the district's 12 neighborhood elementary schools.

The plan would create a high school campus on each of Hammond's west and east sides, with all students relocated in the closures being offered bus transportation, Director of Transportation Rhoderick Poats said Tuesday night.

Poats applauded Miller's foresight in planning partnerships with the city of Hammond and Purdue University Northwest to repurpose the Clark and Gavit campuses if the board approves the school closures.

Miller said he has sought Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott's support in striking a deal with the city to redevelop the Clark campus into potential for retail and single-family housing units in return for the city awarding the school district property behind the Hammond Civic Center for the construction of athletic facilities to pair with the new Hammond school project. 

Meanwhile, PNW has expressed interest in buying Gavit and turning the school building into a "business incubator," Miller said.

"One of the things that I'm most pleased about with Mr. Miller's projection is having a plan in place with those buildings and facilities so that they don't become eyesores on the community," Poats said.

Alternate plan

Miller also presented an alternate plan Tuesday night, which would all high schools open and move Eggers Middle School students into the new school building along with Hammond High School students. This plan would allow Kenwood and Wallace elementary students — both in older, smaller buildings — to move into the current Eggers school.

Another version of this plan, Miller said, could combine Scott Middle School and Morton High School, which would also keep both Clark and Gavit open.

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However, Miller said his preference is moving to a two high school district. Supported by Assistant Superintendent for Academic Services Theresa Mayerik, Miller said this recommendation would present the most equitable opportunity for secondary education, creating potential access to the district's Hammond Academy for the Performing Arts and Early College dual credit programs, only offered currently in select schools.

This plan would also increase students' access to specialty classes such as advanced placement courses and help the district fill a gap seeking qualified instructors in subject areas seeing a statewide teachers shortage.

"Because of the size of our high schools right now, we have 210 classes across the city that have under 20 students in a class. We have an AP Biology class, for instance, of only 10 students," Mayerik said. "It pulls us thin when we have four high schools."

Declining enrollment

The school city has operated with the same four high schools and one vocational school model for decades, reporting a 23,745 student enrollment in the 1969-70 school year, according to Miller's presentation.

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The Tuesday night recommendations come as the district, now serving just more than 12,000 students, looks to reduce costs following a projected $10.2 million operating deficit to be reached next year.

This school year, the school city recorded a total enrollment of 12,230 students districtwide. That's compared to 13,868 students just three years earlier. In a state education funding formula where dollars follow the student, such declines have led to funding losses in the millions.

The district also stands to lose around $900,000 in local funding when property tax caps take effect in Lake County at the start of 2020.

Consolidation has been an ongoing discussion in the Hammond district. A school city committee — comprised of Hammond teachers, residents and administrators — brought the district's first presentation of modern consolidation study to the public last December.

The school city began making reductions over the summer, closing three schools and eliminating dozens of positions. Those reductions have brought operational savings of more than $6.1 million, financial consultant Matt Ruess said Tuesday night, but without any further operational changes, Hammond schools could see a continued loss of $2 million annually.

"We're going to have to make a decision and we can't lollygag anymore," School Board President Anna Mamala said. "It’s the final hour. We’re going to have to make a decision and we’re going to have to make a decision on what’s best for the kids."

Public opinion

The superintendent's recommendations will now be taken into consideration by the Hammond School Board of Trustees, which is expected to hear public comment at its next regular meeting at 6 p.m. Nov. 20 at the school city's administration center at 41 Williams St.

Before that meeting, the board will interview candidates to fill a vacancy left on the five-member board after former President Deborah White announced her resignation. The board will meet at 10 a.m. Saturday at the administration center to conduct interviews and appoint its next board member.

Miller will meet with parents at 6 p.m. Thursday at Gavit Middle/High School and at 6 p.m. Nov. 18 at Clark Middle/High School. The board may vote as early as Nov. 20 on the superintendent's proposals, though following conversation in Tuesday night's meeting, the board may decide to table the vote until a Dec. 3 meeting based on public feedback.

"I understand the loss of two community schools is a big blow, and what they represent to the neighborhoods here of Hammond," Miller said. "It may hurt our future referendum chances if we do this. To me, the way we solve that, is proving we do a good job at the new school, if you follow this plan of the two schools, and convince the community that having faith in us to do this was the right choice."

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.