Enrollment dive, tax caps batter Gary schools
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org/302-0949 February 18, 2014 7:42PM
Gary Wallace 2012 graduates Andreena Campbell, left, and Atya Muhammad, both 19, returned to school Tuesday to talk to a former teacher. They were saddened to learn the school district is considering closing the school. | Carole Carlson~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 19, 2014 3:26PM
GARY — Lew Wallace High 2012 graduates Andreena Campbell and Atya Muhammad voiced concern and sadness Tuesday over the possibility the school could be closed this year.
“I personally don’t think they should shut it down,” said Muhammad, 19. “It’s a nice size.”
Both teens took part in the school’s Jobs for America’s Graduates, a program dedicated to preventing young students from dropping out of school and to help them transition into the workplace.
The pair returned to Lew Wallace Tuesday to report back to their JAG instructor on their progress since graduation.
Campbell is studying to be a medical assistant at Brown Mackie College in Merrillville and Muhammad is studying human resources at Ivy Tech in Gary.
On Monday, the School Board heard a preliminary recommendation from Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt that would shutter six district buildings, including Lew Wallace, which opened in 1926. The move would save about $15.2 million.
The district is grappling with a $12.2 million deficit and is having difficulty meeting its financial obligations to its staff members and vendors.
Pruitt recommended closing Lew Wallace and Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School, two schools in their fifth straight year of failing state accountability measures.
The board is also studying closing Webster Elementary, which was troubled by boiler problems this winter. Webster students would be relocated to the newer Glen Park Academy.
The Watson Boys Academy building would also be closed, but the program would continue as a school-within-a school at the Bailly Preparatory Academy.
New Tech High School would be relocated from the Gary Career Center to another school.
Beveridge and Jefferson elementaries would be combined, although there wasn’t a recommendation on which building would close.
Pruitt also recommended the district close its administrative Service Center because of all the maintenance problems it faces.
None of the proposals is set in stone, at this point. Pruitt wants to hold a series of community forums to gauge public opinion on the closings.
The district’s problems stem from a paltry 42-percent tax collection rate and a shrinking enrollment.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said Tuesday the closings of Lew Wallace and Webster won’t impact the viability of her University Park development project in Glen Park.
She plans to talk about education in her State of the City address Wednesday at the Genesis Center.
“We really do have to work together to provide a quality education for all our students... Right now the other schools are just cannabalizing the good students,” she said of charters and others luring away students.
“It’s indicative of underlying problems of being unable to provide the level of support students need. That’s why I think the truancy program has had such success. Here’s an opportunity to work with parents in areas they’re challenged.”
State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, blames charter schools for the loss of students.
“Ever since the charter movement began, the school corporation suffered financially,” he said. “The closing of schools is inevitable as the student population is dwindling.”
A recent report ranked Gary No. 5 in the country on the percentage of students enrolled in public charter schools in 2012, when 35 percent of the city’s children were in charters. The city is home to six charter schools.
The closing of schools would likely trigger the loss of jobs, a dire prospect in a city with a double digit unemployment rate.
There was an agenda item on the board’s Monday working session on “RIF” or reduction in force, but it was pulled off the agenda without explanation.
The district has been battered on all sides in recent years by property tax caps and reduced state funding making it difficult to maintain many aging buildings. In addition, students have struggled on state accountability measures and the state has labeled the district as “high risk.”
Pruitt, herself a Gary graduate, came back to head the district in 2012. She’s making strides in bringing new technology into the schools and is correcting many deficiencies in the district’s special education program.