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GARY | The Gary Community School Corp. needs a minimum of $6.5 million to repair and renovate some of the school buildings that will be open this fall.

The schools that will be open in Gary are Banneker, Bailly, Beveridge, Glen Park Academy, Jefferson, Marquette, McCullough and Williams elementary schools, along with West Side, Wirt-Emerson and the Gary Area Career Center. The school board voted Thursday to make Dunbar-Pulaski the city-wide middle school. The vast majority of those buildings need renovation.

Gary schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt said the money for repairs will come from the general fund. School leaders hope closing five school buildings and teacher and staff retirements will free up money for capital projects and building improvements. Repairs for Bailly are expected to come from insurance to restore the storm-ravaged building.

Gary school Facilities Director Charles Prewitt said several of the buildings need roof repairs, painting, new ceiling tile and boiler repairs. The district has not even been able to keep up with lawn maintenance, and a crew from the Lake County work release program has helped out this summer with lawn work, he said.

Prewitt said five people cut grass, including a couple of temporary people, one plumber, three electricians, one sheet metal worker, one painter, two glazers, four carpenters and two pipefitters. As a result of vandalism at school buildings, Prewitt said glass windows have been replaced with 40-inch plexiglass. He said it prevents windows from being broken into but offers little in energy efficiency.

"We are behind on maintenance," Prewitt said.

"We don't have the resources to get everything done that needs to be done. We've had problems with vandalism. It's an urban environment with many low-income residents. It's a difficult situation. Crime seems to be highest in this area, which has the least amount of economic ability. It's too late to sugarcoat it. We can't keep patching these buildings. It's like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. My goal is to have a three-year plan, a five-year plan and a 10-year plan for the district.

"We've had to make some hard decisions, and we have had to make them quickly. We're asking all of our employees to put forth an extra effort to assist us with the impending reorganization. We hope to begin moving in mid-July," he said.

Gary school leaders have said property tax caps, declining enrollment and a 42 percent tax collection rate in Gary have hurt the schools. According to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance in 2014, the city of Gary lost a total of $47 million because of property tax caps. For the school district alone, that was $9,974,115. Those tax caps impact funds associated with the capital projects, transportation and bus replacement funds.

Hope for more money seen in next legislative session

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said she has met with the superintendent and some School Board members to see how the state can be of assistance. Rogers said she has talked to the Senate Appropriations Committee, a panel instrumental in crafting the state budget and school funding formula of which she is a member, about what might be available from the Indiana General Assembly.

"We will meet next week," she said Friday. "We need to see exactly what they have done to improve the financial situation of the school district. I also had a conversation with Luke Kenley (Republican senator from Noblesville), and he is ready to meet with them at any time."

Rogers said next year is a budget year and there may be an opportunity to put together a proposal that can return some dollars to the Gary Community School Corp. "With a 42 percent property tax collection, I think the state has some responsibility in making sure we provide what students need to achieve in this city," Rogers said.

Prewitt has a wish list of things that need to be done at each school building, then he has a more practical list of things he hopes to accomplish by the time school opens for teachers Aug. 18 with all work done by the start of the second semester in January.

Prewitt said many of the school buildings also need new security doors. Superintendent Pruitt said the district hopes to obtain a federal grant allowing them to upgrade the doors, locks, wall security cameras and camera room.

"Our focus is safer, cleaner, better," Pruitt said. "We are collectively working to resolve the issues. We're working with the city of Gary as part of the Great Cities, Great Communities program."

The five Gary schools closed this year — Brunswick, Watson, Webster, Lew Wallace and the Lincoln Achievement Center  — join the other Gary schools that were closed previously bringing the total of shuttered school buildings to 15. Prewitt said the boilers will be drained in the buildings closed in June, along with draining the pipes. Prewitt said none of the closed buildings will be heated. He said the electricity will be on to maintain the alarm system and safety lighting around the building.

The district also voted to close the school service center and will house administrators in a school building.

Finally, Prewitt said the district knows it is responsible for boiler system repairs at Roosevelt College and Career Academy, now run by Tennessee-based EdisonLearning, which took over the failing school three years ago. The high school had numerous problems during the winter due to lack of heat, burst pipes and flooding in the building. The Gary Community School Corp. and EdisonLearning signed an operations, maintenance and repair agreement in January.

Last week, Roosevelt closed when Indiana American Water Co. turned off the water in the building, forcing EdisonLearning administrators to send students home. Those students will be housed at the Gary Area Career Center beginning Monday until issues regarding the water bill have been resolved.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.