INDIANAPOLIS — The Gary schools emergency manager is recommending Wirt-Emerson School for the Visual and Performing Arts in the Miller neighborhood be closed at the end of the current academic year, and its high school students and programs consolidated into West Side Leadership Academy.
Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley told the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board Friday that it doesn't make financial or academic sense for the cash-strapped Gary Community School Corp. to continue operating two high schools when a single, comprehensive facility will reduce expenses and potentially increase revenue by growing enrollment.
Hinckley also is proposing to turn Bailly Preparatory Academy into a middle school serving all Gary students in grades six through eight.
The district's kindergarten through fifth-grade students then would be reassigned this summer to attend one of the remaining elementary schools in the fall. There are no planned changes for the preschool center.
Her suggestions appeared to be positively received Friday by the five DUAB members who oversee Hinckley's administration of the district under a state law enacted last year that supplanted Gary's elected school trustees with a state-appointed emergency manager.
DUAB is scheduled to act on Hinckley's proposals March 2.
Region residents interested in commenting on the plans can do so at a public forum set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Gary Area Career Center, 1800 E 35th Ave., or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gary school board President Nellie Moore said she understands the need to reduce the district's facilities footprint, but pointed out that Gary still will have two high schools, even if Wirt-Emerson closes, because Roosevelt College and Career Academy remains open — though run by an outside entity following years of F accountability ratings.
"The monies (they) receive for enrollment at Roosevelt could be coming to the district, or at least not leaving the district," Moore said.
"I understand we can't close it, because we don't operate it. We need to pursue some type of action to rid ourselves of the obligation to support it."
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said closing Wirt-Emerson reflects the difficult decisions facing not just the school district but also the entire city due to declining tax revenues.
She wants to be sure the visual and performing arts program at Wirt-Emerson, which she said has been a vital part of the city, be maintained, and that the building does not become an eyesore.
A hard decision
The district's emergency manager acknowledged that it's never an easy decision to shutter a school. But with enrollment at both Wirt-Emerson and West Side well below capacity, and the district facing an ongoing $1.5 million monthly deficit, Hinckley said tough decisions had to be made.
"When you look at the population, it's very unusual in a 5,000-student district to see more than one high school," Hinckley said.
She explained that after a thorough review by her Gary Schools Recovery team, and community input at four public meetings, Wirt-Emerson was the obvious choice for closure due its poorly maintained facilities, difficult-to-reach location for most district students and the superior opportunities for innovative educational programming and enrollment growth available at West Side.
"When we look at suitability, West Side is in a better position to meet all the needs of a comprehensive high school," Hinckley said.
Miller Citizens Corp. President George Rogge agreed that West Side is the perfect high school for Gary.
But he doesn't believe the school corporation should abandon Wirt-Emerson as it currently plans to if the school is closed this summer.
"Of the 525 students at Wirt-Emerson, the majority of them are in middle school," Rogge said. "We believe that Wirt-Emerson should be converted to a middle school."
On the other hand, Gary school board member Carlos Tolliver sees no reason to shut down Wirt-Emerson and consolidate the district's high school students into one building.
"She's talking about closing a school that has the greatest opportunity for growth," Tolliver said of Hinckley's plan.
"Some students are just not going to go to West Side, and we're going to see continual enrollment decline."
Micah Vincent, DUAB chairman and director of the Indiana Office of Management and Budget, said it's a hard decision to close a school and shake up an entire district, but it may be the best decision given the dire financial condition of the Gary Community School Corp.
"If we are unable, or unwilling, to make these kinds of decisions, then we're going to have to make other kinds of decisions. And probably decisions that are not as advantageous for the school district or the education of the students," Vincent said.
Hinckley also plans to save additional funds by closing the Lincoln Achievement Center, a former school that houses the district's administrative offices, and moving those employees into available space at West Side.
Another state loan
While the Wirt-Emerson closing and the other consolidation proposals could increase district revenue and reduce expenses in coming months, Hinckley also was forced to ask DUAB Friday to authorize another state loan to meet payroll in March and April.
After extended discussion, DUAB agreed to recommend the State Board of Finance award a $3.75 million loan from the state's Common School Fund, repayable over 10 years beginning in July 2019.
Last year, the district borrowed more than $16 million from the state to cover operating expenses and severely past-due bills.
This will be the first loan of 2018 if approved Tuesday by the state finance board.
Eric Parish, executive vice president of MGT Consulting Group, the parent company of Gary Schools Recovery LLC, in January submitted a deficit-reduction plan to DUAB that he said should eliminate the need for additional state loans by early 2019.
The plan contains 32 options for increasing revenue or reducing expenses that are designed to ultimately produce a small surplus that can be applied to the more than $100 million in debt racked up by the elected school trustees prior to the state takeover of the district in August.
"The deficit was years in the making; we're not going to get there in less than a year," Parish said. "But by the end of 2019 we are eliminating the deficit through the plan, and we can begin to pay down the debt."
Times Staff Writer Carmen McCollum contributed to this report.