INDIANAPOLIS — Some two dozen Gary residents and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson joined state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville, Thursday at the Statehouse as he condemned a proposal to further sideline the already powerless elected trustees of the Gary Community School Corp.
In an impassioned speech, Melton proclaimed that House Bill 1315 is an abuse of state authority, because it makes the School Board merely an advisory body to the district's state-appointed emergency manager and limits the board to four public meetings a year.
"The state is telling our local, elected officials that they can't make decisions," Melton said. "They're taking away our voice and our vote."
In fact, it was a 2017 law, co-sponsored by Melton, that transferred the School Board's powers to Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley, after the board repeatedly overspent the district's annual revenue, failed to maintain school buildings and racked up more than $100 million in debt.
Nevertheless, Melton called on the Republican leaders of the Indiana House and Senate, and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, to scuttle this year's legislation and continue requiring Hinckley to consult monthly with the School Board members.
"Despite teachers and communities taking positive action over the last year to address financial issues, HB1315 will remove the voice of the local Gary residents from policymaking," Melton said.
He disagreed with the suggestion that the proposal's requirement for Hinckley to hold a monthly public forum is sufficient to keep city residents, including School Board members, apprised of what's happening in their schools.
"They (the School Board members) have the right to ask questions in their own meetings," Melton said. "They are an elected body."
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State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, also blasted the measure not just for what it would do to Gary, but also because it proposes to eliminate the elected board of the Muncie Community Schools and put Ball State University in charge of managing the district.
"At least in Gary there may be a way back. In Muncie, this is permanent," Tallian said. "I just can't imagine the appalling arrogance that it is taking for some group of legislators to just take over (a) school system."
"Is your school next?" she asked.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to decide next week whether to advance the legislation for a vote by the Senate. It previously passed the House, 64-27.
That committee demonstrated Thursday that it's not opposed to aiding Gary.
As Freeman-Wilson looked on, the committee unanimously approved Melton's Senate Resolution 24 requesting a legislative summer study committee to analyze the economic development potential of Gary's Buffington Harbor area.
"This is a great opportunity for the state and the city to collaborate together," Melton said.