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Indiana lawmakers meeting in special session approve reduced role for Gary School Board
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2018 Indiana General Assembly

Indiana lawmakers meeting in special session approve reduced role for Gary School Board

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INDIANAPOLIS — The trustees of the Gary Community School Corp., who last year were supplanted by a state-appointed emergency manager after repeatedly failing to balance the district's budget and racking up more than $100 million in debt, will see their role even further reduced beginning July 1.

On Monday, the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly — meeting in special session — overwhelmingly approved House Enrolled Act 1315, making the elected Gary school board merely an advisory body for Emergency Manager Peggy Hinckley to consult when she sees fit, and limiting the board to four public meetings a year.

The measure, which Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has signed into law, also puts Ball State University in charge of operating the similarly distressed Muncie Community Schools, and creates a financial indicators program to, ideally, prevent any other cash-strapped school districts from coming under direct state control.

State Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, sponsor of the legislation, said clarifying that the emergency manager is the Gary school district's governing entity, in lieu of the school board, ensures her early progress in right-sizing the district's spending will continue.

"Gary has a lot of potential for economic development," Mishler said. "The primary issue holding all this economic development back is the negative perception of the school corporation."

"While it may be unpopular, I think it's necessary for us to help turn this school around so we can have that economic development up there. ... This will benefit Gary, and it will benefit the entire state."

Gary lawmakers opposed

Legislators representing the Steel City strongly argued against the proposal, despite its limited scope compared to last year's Senate Enrolled Act 567 that handed control of the district to an emergency manager.

State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, proclaimed in a 49-minute speech that the new legislation was "an attack" on the people of Gary because "one or two" school board members dared to question the decisions being made by the emergency manager, who he described as "a benevolent dictator."

"After we do this, she doesn't have to deal with resistance anymore," Smith said. "This bill threatens freedom."

State Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago, and state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, likewise suggested the General Assembly was going out of its way to usurp local control and sanction Gary citizens for electing outspoken school board members.

"This is all too punitive, especially in light of 567," Brown said. "We just enacted that last year, and we haven't allowed enough time to see the successes or the failures of 567 to come back with additional changes in the law and the authority of the school corporation."

"We're setting a very dangerous precedent. Yes, it is Gary now, and it is Muncie now. But it could be you tomorrow."

State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, who is black, said that while he's never experienced racism from his overwhelmingly white Senate colleagues, it's impossible to ignore the racial undertones of legislation that's focused on a primarily black city.

"Let's not forget: slavery used to be the law of the land; red-lining used to be the law of the land; Jim Crow used to be the law of the land; segregation used to be the law of the land," Melton said.

"So when the majority of a minority community calls out policies that appear to infringe upon our rights — don't ignore that. Because we have the history to back our story up."

Notwithstanding similar passionate arguments by state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, the House voted 63-30 for the measure, and the Senate approved it, 34-14.

Rare special session

Both chambers also approved three additional proposals that originally died awaiting final votes when the regular legislation session expired at midnight March 14, as well as House Enrolled Act 1457 making 22 technical corrections to the Indiana Code.

The governor has signed all the legislation, which increases school safety funding (House Enrolled Act 1230), adjusts various state and local business taxes and exemptions (House Enrolled Act 1242), and revises Indiana tax law to conform with recently enacted federal changes (House Enrolled Act 1316).

This was the General Assembly's first special session since 2009, and the first special session in a non-budget year since 2002.

Hoosier lawmakers were able to get their work done Monday in a single day because they adopted procedures waiving the usual requirement that legislation be considered on three separate days in each chamber.

Those procedures, however, also denied representatives and senators the opportunity to suggest revisions to any of the five measures or offer additional proposals on other topics.

On what likely was his final day in the House, Brown tried to submit legislation increasing the state's cigarette tax as a way to reduce smoking rates — a cause long-championed by the 36-year representative who is running for county office this year instead of re-election.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the procedures adopted by the House precluded Brown's proposal from being considered.

Across the rotunda, state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, voted "no" on all five measures in protest of the Senate's rule prohibiting amendments, as well as in response to the governor's claim that an emergency necessitated immediate approval of the legislation without additional public hearings.

"If the administration is going to take the heat for calling a special session, then it ought to take the heat for doing it the right way," Tallian said.

"We're just called down here to be quiet and vote. ... This is not the way to do business."

Upon adjournment, Senate Republicans took care of a bit of additional business by selecting state Sen. Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, to succeed retiring state Sen. David Long, R-Fort Wayne, as Senate president for the 2019-20 General Assembly.

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