INDIANAPOLIS — State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, is joining state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, in demanding the state terminate its contract with the emergency management firm operating the financially distressed Gary Community School Corp.
Like Melton, Smith said he recently learned that Tony Bennett, the Republican state superintendent of public instruction between 2009 and 2013, is associated with MGT Consulting Group, whose subsidiary Gary Schools Recovery LLC is running the district.
According to MGT, Bennett is not and never has been a member of the emergency manager team in Gary. He has not and does not engage in the decision-making process for any Gary emergency management decisions.
Nevertheless, Smith claims Bennett's partnership at a separate MGT subsidiary is "a farce" on the schoolchildren of Gary, and "carries a stench that cannot easily be removed."
"It can be reasonably argued that Tony Bennett played a substantial role in putting Gary schools into the mess that it finds itself, by championing policies that treated public schools like second class citizens in favor of charters, vouchers and home schools," Smith said.
"While it has been more than five years since Bennett held the post of superintendent of public instruction, the harm he did during his four years in office lingers to this day. He was anti-public schools, anti-student, anti-teacher and anti-everything that didn’t have to do with benefiting the education-for-profit industry."
Under Indiana law, the state superintendent of public instruction is not a policy-making position.
The officeholder merely administers the education policies enacted by the General Assembly and governor, as implemented by the State Board of Education.
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During Bennett's tenure, the Republican Legislature and governor revised Indiana's school funding formula to require education funding follow students to whichever school their parents decided to send them, be it public, charter or private.
That reduced state funding to districts like Gary, which lost more than half its student population to charter schools as parents fled the F-rated public school corporation.
However, Gary's elected school trustees failed to correspondingly cut spending and racked up more than $100 million in debt — putting Gary schools in the worst financial condition of any district in the state.
As a result, the General Assembly, under legislation sponsored and supported by both Melton and Smith, took control of the Gary school district in 2017, and put it under the auspices of an emergency manager to right-size spending and begin reducing the debt.
The state can terminate its contract with Gary Schools Recovery for convenience with 90 days notice to the company, according to the contract.
But the Gary district still would remain under state control, amid considerable uncertainty, as a new emergency management firm would have to be selected and begin operations in the middle of the spring semester.
Only action by the Republican-controlled General Assembly can terminate the distressed status of the Gary school district.