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HAMMOND — A desire for change in public education rang out in state Sen. Eddie Melton's Tuesday night Hoosier Community Conversation in Hammond.

In the two-hour town hall, educators from across the Region brought forward concerns of state accountability, funding and relationship building among Indiana educators and legislators.

"Teachers have to speak up," said Anita Cox, a teacher at Hammond's Morton High School. "I do not think anything is going to change until a mass number of teachers stand up and start telling their stories."

Melton, following last month's launch of his gubernatorial exploration committee, was joined by Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick on Tuesday night as one of a series of statewide listening tour events taking place this summer.

The tour pairs Melton, a Democratic senator from Gary, with McCormick, a Republican and former Yorktown Community School superintendent, in visiting cities such as Michigan City, Valparaiso and East Chicago to hear the concerns of local educators. A petition collecting names to help put Melton's name on the ballot to challenge Republican incumbent Gov. Eric Holcomb sat outside the town hall meeting.

"Now here you have a Democrat and a Republican able to stand publicly that the 'D' behind my name and the 'R' behind her name shouldn't get in the way of education and of educating children," Melton said. "Today is about education in particular because no matter what subject we talk about — economic development, health, wellness — education is going to be all the center of it all."

Melton opened with a statement sharing that along his tour with McCormick, he's found concern for funding public education to be common statewide. His comments came to nodding heads among administrators from River Forest Community School Corp., which passed a referendum in May to support valuable services like its transportation program, or Lake Ridge Schools, which closed an elementary school and cut dozens of positions after its failed November referendum.

Among the funding concerns brought by public educators were disproportionate state funding allotted to charter and voucher schools, an increasing turn toward seeking referendum support for educational and capital projects funding and teacher pay in Indiana ranking among the lowest in the country, despite a multi-million-dollar state surplus.

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"It's just ridiculous to talk about surplus money," said Wilma Reed, a retired School City of Hammond special education teacher. "It's just unbelievable that people do not recognize that people are suffering here."

Educators from across Lake County also lined up to express support for McCormick, who will be Indiana's last elected state schools chief.

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Holcomb signed legislation in April fast-tracking existing legislation in place to make the position a governor-appointed role after McCormick said she will not seek reelection in 2020. McCormick currently fills the only publicly elected position on the state board of education.

McCormick also drew attention to the state's new teacher pay workforce, which has been criticized for not incorporating enough teacher input, as well as a lack of educational experience required of future superintendents.

"You would really take question if we had a superintendent of our state police who had no police experience or if our department of health person was led with someone who had no health service experience, yet for education, it's OK," McCormick said. "That is a direct reflection of the lack of respect toward the profession."

Some have speculated McCormick's tour with Melton could position her for a potential lieutenant governor appointment. When pressed about it by State Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago, she laughed and expressed appreciation for his support.

McCormick and Melton rounded out the talk with a call to action, asking teachers and educators to connect with their communities and pay attention to the responsibility held by elected officials.

"Schools tell a story, we have over 50% of our students on free and reduced lunch and/or textbooks at a time where we're saying unemployment is really, really low, and we're celebrating that, go ask your schools," McCormick said. "You need to ask those questions as a voter. Who is your customer? It's got to be students or families. It's got to be about people, not just business."

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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.