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State school chief tours closing Gary middle school

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz talks with Dunbar-Pulaski Academic and Career Academy seventh-graders Mikayla Taylor, left, and J'arnce White during a tour of the school Monday in Gary.

The State Board of Education’s abrupt decision to close Gary’s Dunbar-Pulaski School leads to the obvious question: Now what? Packed inside that two-word question is a call for serious discussion of the future of education in Gary.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz voted against closing that school. Her agency has been working with Gary school officials to try to improve the quality of education there. They’ve made some progress, but as the Dunbar-Pulaski closure shows, there’s a long way to go.

“We have work to do in Gary (Community) School Corp. That much is not disputed,” Ritz told The Times Editorial Board on Monday.

Roosevelt Career and Technical Academy in Gary was among the first schools in Indiana to be subject to state intervention for being a consistent failure. EdisonLearning was brought in by former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and the State Board of Education to turn the school around.

Dunbar-Pulaski was the first school in Indiana to be closed under Public Law 221, the state’s school accountability statute.

“We’ll be looking at what it means to close a school in Indiana,” Ritz said. “There’s a lot of questions that are unanswered.”

Some of those questions are simple logistics, like where the students will be sent to school and what that will mean for their future prospects.

The Indiana Department of Education has to figure this out, and pronto.

But this isn’t just about one failing school. It’s about Gary, the state’s only failing school district.

In all fairness to Gary school Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt, this has been a problem for decades. Gary’s school district faces many of the same problems as the civil city – infrastructure and payroll no longer appropriate in a city whose population, and school population, have been downsized dramatically.

In many instances, schools are crumbling for lack of maintenance. Parents often complain about conditions in classrooms. And that’s just the physical plant.

The district’s problems are vast. How can a school district rack up $5.4 million in unpaid bills to NIPSCO for electricity and natural gas? How many other vendors have been stiffed? How many will no longer do business with the school district?

Ritz must plan for the orderly closure of Dunbar-Pulaski, but she should also plan for a state takeover of the school district in case the State Board of Education decides enough is enough.

Wrapped inside this policy is the philosophical question of who controls local schools — the local school board or the state school board? But there is also the practical question of how long students must be subjected to a poor learning environment.

Under Mayor Rudy Clay, Gary was forced to make drastic and unpopular spending cuts. The Distressed Unit Appeals Board was set up by the Indiana General Assembly to try to turn the city around. A fiscal monitor was appointed to guide the city.

Something like this is likely to be needed for the school district. Sooner or later, the state will have to intervene more actively than Ritz’s current model of assistance to Gary.

Before the State Board of Education orders a state takeover of the school district, there must be frank and thorough discussion of just what that entails.

If it means hiring a turnaround specialist to make the hard decisions and give back the keys in five years, so be it.

The State Board of Education, Gov. Mike Pence, Ritz and legislative leaders, as well as educators outside the school district, should start having this discussion.

Rather than send state troopers to Gary at Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson’s request, Pence ordered the state police to lead a study of Gary Police Department operations and recommend changes. He should do something similar for the school district. Ritz should support him in this.

Closing Dunbar-Pulaski should serve as the wake-up call that drastic measures are needed in Gary’s school district. Before making a hasty decision, let’s determine the best course of action to turn around that failing school district.

Gary’s students have been struggling to learn in challenging conditions for too long.

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Senior 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.