GARY — A milk crate is flipped upside down beneath a busted window of the crumbling Edison Middle School off Fifth Avenue, offering easy access.
Inside, graffiti is scribbled on the walls and blackboards of former classrooms.
A tattered marquee sign outside reads, “Good Bye Edison,” bidding farewell at the now-abandoned middle school, formerly Edison High School.
Across town, the old George Carver Elementary School near 25th and Virginia is in similar shape, though the first-floor windows are boarded up with plywood to keep trespassers out. From an open, second-story window, a lone, tattered stack of health textbooks sits undisturbed, collecting dust.
Used spray cans of paint litter the ground outside the old Horace Mann High School. An open window is bordered by jagged glass. The school’s main entrance door is wide open, with multicolored layers of faded and fresh graffiti.
Many of Gary's school buildings have been hit by arson over the years or served as dwellings for squatters and gangs. They’ve been tagged with graffiti and looted for left-behind school equipment and other valuables.
No easy task
When a homicide victim’s body was discovered last month inside the abandoned Norton Elementary School at 13th and Harrison streets, Emergency Manager Pete Morikis said in a media statement that the teen suspects trespassed and broke into what was otherwise a securely boarded-up building.
But a recent check across town at Gary schools and the district’s administration building shows the Gary Community School Corp. is failing to properly secure all of its shuttered school buildings. It’s no easy task, but Times readers and Gary residents have expressed concerns over the district’s ability to maintain the abandoned structures.
Asked to comment on building conditions, Morikis said the district’s first priority is to maintain the schools that are open “by providing quality educational services and safe places to all youth enrolled in our schools.”
“The Gary Community School Corp. is well aware of the conditions of closed schools throughout our city, and we share the sentiment of residents when it comes to safety concerns. This is why our efforts continue to secure and board up schools while faced with the challenge of continual vandalism,” he said.
Due to security confidentiality, Morikis said the district does not publicly reveal when and where police surveillance and monitoring are occurring, but “know that it is taking place.”
“We will continue to secure closed buildings and look forward to working with all interested parties who endeavor to purchase these properties,” he said.
Sell the schools
After a lackluster showing last year, the Gary Community School Corp. says it is poised to relist its crumbling, shuttered schools for sale, with the hopes to shore up some much-needed cash for operations and owed debt.
But in the interim, the structures continue to fall into disrepair — many of them poorly boarded up and acting as a magnet for crime and doing little to improve Gary’s image.
Gary City Council President Ron Brewer, D-at large, said much like the city, the district is likely overwhelmed by the city’s high volume of abandoned structures to manage.
“The way the schools closed, it was in such a disorderly fashion and with no future plans,” Brewer said. “We just started closing schools and accumulating buildings. It’s a serious problem, but I get how the emergency manager is struggling.”
He said the school district could do a better job holding purchasers accountable by requiring a quick timeline for demolition. Otherwise, even sold properties will be left standing for years, he said.
The district put 33 school buildings up for sale last year and received only six bids.
Asking prices ranged as low as $39,300 for undeveloped land at Mount Street and Ninth Avenue to as high as $5.85 million for Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School — a school shuttered in 2015 because of poor performance.
Critics pointed to the district’s high asking prices for the district’s inability to sell more.
The schools are considered prime real estate in Gary, but demolition costs have deterred reputable developers. And tax liens on the properties previously held up sales until last year, when the district reached a settlement with the IRS to wipe those liens clean.
Brewer said the asking prices were “unrealistic” and hopes the district relists the schools the second time at a “more humble” starting bid.
The quicker these schools sell, the less money the district will have to throw at the shuttered buildings to secure them, he said.
“We need to get these schools unloaded," he said. "Not everyone is going to pay top dollar. It’s about getting these eyesores taken down."
Tracy Coleman, a parent of children in the school system, recently spearheaded efforts to pass a resolution at the Gary City Council urging the state to resolve the district's debt and start much-needed repairs to West Side Leadership Academy.
She said she would like to see the new Jerome Prince mayoral administration re-visit the city's plans to address vacant schools and collaborate with the community districts.
"This problem should not be left for another generation to fix. There is no doubt that there is an expense to tear down ... but there comes a point that our leaders have to take responsibility," she said.