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To call Gary Community School Corp. an agency in crisis is hardly an understatement. It needs help, and pronto.

The district is $23.7 million in debt. It's having trouble paying teachers, let alone vendors.

That debt includes more than $7.1 million in taxes and interest charged by the Internal Revenue Service, $4.15 million owed to NIPSCO, $730,000 owed to AT&T and $440,000 owed to the Gary Sanitary District.

And those are just the financial troubles. The city also has real estate issues. It operates 16 buildings, but it also owns 21 closed buildings, some of which have become havens for crime — including homicide.

Connita L. Richardson, 17, of Chicago, was found dead recently in the former Emerson High School building at 716 E. Seventh Ave. after a concerned citizen reported seeing someone in the building. It is not the only abandoned school that is open to intruders.

Academic issues facing the district are severe as well.

Today, The Times is launching an ongoing series of stories about the confluence of declining tax revenues, population and school enrollment and how they are causing a host of financial and other problems.

The financial issues are a top priority, because the finances affect every aspect of the district and its ability to function.

State Sens. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, and Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, threw the district a lifeline with their legislation that gives the School Board little choice but to seek the help of the Distressed Unit Appeals Board, the same state agency that forced the civil city — both units of local government are autonomous, though interdependent — to drastically slash spending.

Other school districts across Indiana are cautiously watching the situation in Gary to see if this is the answer to financial troubles that are heightened in Gary, to be sure, but felt to a lesser degree elsewhere.

The School Board needs to choose a financial specialist in less than three weeks to begin the turnaround process. It must choose wisely, and quickly.

Get that massive debt off the district’s back so it can gain more flexibility and address other urgent issues, too.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.