INDIANAPOLIS — Triple-digit annual student enrollment declines at the Gary Community School Corp. finally may be a thing of the past.

Micah Vincent, chairman of the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board, announced Wednesday that Gary's public schools have just 97 fewer students enrolled this year — for a total of 4,584 — compared to the 2017-18 school year.

That translates to a roughly $850,000 reduction in state funding, since Indiana education instructional money follows the child. But Vincent said it's a far cry from the 400 to 500 students a year whose parents chose to enroll them elsewhere prior to the Gary schools being taken over last August by a state-appointed emergency manager.

"We're seeing some leveling off," Vincent said. "That's a big change from that annual drop we've been seeing year-over-year for probably at least 10 years."

"I think that's very encouraging," he added.

DUAB oversees Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley, and her Gary Schools Recovery team, who are operating the district in place of the elected local school board, which was supplanted at the direction of the Indiana General Assembly after the board repeatedly failed to balance the district's budget and racked up more than $100 million in debt.

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As a result, Gary schools Chief Financial Officer Leonard Moody had to seek, and did receive, DUAB approval Wednesday for the district's 2019 budget that proposes $85 million in spending, but likely will top out around the $69 million authorized by the state for 2018.

Moody said the higher number includes "wish list" items, such as student technological equipment upgrades and building structural improvements, that probably will not be funded due to the poor property tax collection rate in the city of Gary.

State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, who serves as a DUAB adviser, pressed Moody and the DUAB voting members to say whether Hinckley intends to continue cutting costs by relocating the district's preschool program from Bethune Early Childhood Development Center to Gary's elementary schools.

He presented a petition signed by hundreds of Gary residents urging DUAB not to close Bethune. Smith, who teaches education at Indiana University Northwest, also said preschool children would be ill-served sharing a building with older students.

Vincent said Hinckley has not notified DUAB of any plan to end classes at Bethune.

If she does, Vincent said there will be a public hearing and other public comment opportunities before any decision is made, similar to the process employed prior to the June shuttering of Wirt-Emerson school.

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