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MARC CHASE: Ritz champions soft touch when Gary needs firm hand

MARC CHASE: Ritz champions soft touch when Gary needs firm hand

Desperate times indeed call for desperate measures.

But the Gary public schools' desperate times long ago collapsed into a dark abyss, and the utterly failing school district needs a stern, deliberate hand if it's ever to be pulled back from the quicksands of futility.

The district certainly doesn't need the coddling of Indiana's top education official.

I met State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz for the first time Monday as she toured region schools, including the soon-to-be shuttered Dunbar-Pulaski Academic & Career Academy (middle school) in Gary.

She's been a politically charged character since her election to the statewide office in 2012 because of a power struggle between the governor's largely Republican allies on the election board and Ritz, a rare Democrat occupant of the office in this mostly red state.

The fight at times has seemed a downright juvenile display among the folks who are supposed to be caretakers of our children's education.

So what I have to say may shock many of my readers, especially the conservative ones.

I left my Monday visit with the superintendent genuinely liking Glenda Ritz. She was well spoken and demonstrated a verbal compassion for students and their educational futures during a visit with The Times Editorial Board.

The school librarian in her — a position she held before ascending to the role of chief Hoosier school administrator — obviously has left her with a benevolence for the state's youngest minds.

But such compassion, while important, sometimes stands in the way of growth and improvement.

Like a matriarch trying to encourage her kids, Ritz said Monday she believes local school districts, including Gary, should have the ultimate control over their own policies and fixes.

She wants to "empower" them and provide them the tools they need to succeed of their own accord. Local control can and should work in most places.

But for Gary's ills, Ritz's prescription sounds too much like coddling a wayward child after several hours of bad behavior. What the kid really needs is a swat on the bottom and forced redirection by the parent.

In essence, that's what the State Board of Education has done in spite of Ritz.

Gary is clearly the worst of the worst in terms of performance out of all state school districts.

The State Board of Education recently voted 6-4, with Ritz opposing the measure, to close the struggling Dunbar-Pulaski school. More such closures, based on foundering student performance, could be on the horizon.

It's a piecemeal approach, but it's something.

What Gary truly needs — because of its exceptionally poor schools performance — is a particularly strong state response, perhaps a takeover by a third party unafraid of making tough, politically unpopular decisions.

What it clearly doesn't need is coddling.

Ritz needs to learn tough love where Gary schools are concerned if the district's deserving students are to have any kind of shot at a quality education.

And if she isn't capable of showing that kind of toughness, Ritz should abdicate to a party with a firmer hand.


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