Education Op-Ed, Melton: Governor signs bill to prevent Gary schools’ closure

Op-Ed, Melton: Governor signs bill to prevent Gary schools’ closure

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Sen. Melton wrote the following opinion editorial in response to Senate Enrolled Act 567’s signature into law by Governor Eric Holcomb.

INDIANAPOLIS – Prior to the 2017 legislative session, Senate and House Republicans discussed radical options to address the financial crisis that faces the Gary Community School Corporation (GCSC): completely dissolve the school district or merge the corporation with neighboring schools.  

The financial crisis has developed over a period of years and the school corporation projects an operating deficit of $8.5 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 and $6.7 million in FY 2018. The corporation’s outstanding debt of over $100 million has been caused by several contributing factors. Those factors include: property tax caps which have cost the district $84 million since 2009 and is projected to lose an additional $14 million over the next year, the proliferation of charter schools which have caused Gary to be ranked 6th in the nation with the most charters with nearly 50 percent of students leaving the district over the past few years, nearly 700 vouchers along with open enrollment in neighboring communities have dwindled the population of students attending the GCSC as well as poor financial management by the district have all greatly contributed to this financial crisis.

After months of intense discussion between the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Gary delegation was able to bypass the previous options and negotiate legislation that would ultimately save the district through the approval of SEA 567.

The original version of SEA 567, authored by Sen. Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville), designates the corporation as a distressed political subdivision and requires an emergency manager have authority over the financial matters of the school corporation. I worked as a co-author on Sen. Kenley’s proposal to ensure there is a balance between the input given by the state and the local community when it comes to decision-making on behalf of the GCSC. When SEA 567 transitioned from the Senate to the House of Representatives, the proposal was drastically altered with added provisions.

The final version of SEA 567 now incorporates an academic takeover along with the original financial takeover and adds Muncie Community Schools, along with Gary, as another distressed unit. I opposed both of these additions to the legislation but I still believe this bill is the only vehicle to ensure that our district remains open and viable for the children and families in our community.

Despite these negative additions, I am proud that we fought diligently to ensure that the emergency manager delegated in this bill has the ability to request grants from the state and a level of loan forgiveness of the corporation’s nearly $30 million from Indiana’s Common School Fund. Once the emergency manager has been placed and this individual is able to assess the short-term and long-term needs of the district, I am optimistic that the Indiana General Assembly will make the necessary appropriation to adequately fund the critical needs of the district.

Although the original Senate version of the proposal was the best version of the bill, I am encouraged that we have a plan of action that we can bring back to the community.

At the start of the legislative session, the fate of the GCSC seemed dim. With the passage of SEA 567, I am pleased to tell my constituents that neither of the original two outcomes for the school corporation will be fulfilled. The GCSC will not be dissolved and/or merged with neighboring districts.

This a major step forward in a long process in turning the financial condition around for our community and I look forward to continuing to work hard in Indianapolis on our community’s behalf throughout the rest of my tenure as the State Senator of the 3rd district. 

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Sen. Melton and other members of the Gary legislative delegation will hold a public meeting regarding SEA 567.

WHO: Sen. Eddie Melton, Sen. Lonnie M. Randolph, Rep. Earl Harris Jr. Rep. Charlie Brown, Rep. Vernon G. Smith

                        WHAT: Public meeting to debrief and have a Q&A session on SEA 567

                        WHEN: Monday, May 8, 2017 at 5:30 p.m.

                        WHERE: Gary Career Center, 1800 E 35th Ave, Gary, Ind. 46409