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Gary school board set to vote on closings

The WatsAcademy for Boys Gary.  |  File photo

The Watson Academy for Boys in Gary. | File photo

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Gary schools

Revised closure list

Brunswick Elementary

Webster Elementary

Watson Boys Academy

Lincoln Achievement Center

Still in the air

Lew Wallace High School

Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School

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Updated: July 2, 2014 6:22AM



GARY — A public outcry Thursday against the closing of Bailly Preparatory Academy may have touched a nerve with school officials.

Bailly didn’t appear on a revised closing recommendation read by Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt in a special board work session Saturday.

Instead, Pruitt recommended the district close the Watson Boys Academy building at 2065 Mississippi St. and relocate the small, gender-based program to the larger Bailly building at 4621 Georgia St. or to nearby Williams Elementary.

The board set a 4 p.m. meeting Tuesday to consider a final vote on the closings. The meeting will be held at the School Service Center, 620 E. 10th Place.

Bailly has been closed since December after pipes burst, causing serious water damage. Bailly students, parents and staff members pleaded with the board Thursday to keep the school open, citing a list of its positive aspects.

Still on the closing list are Webster and Brunswick elementaries, and the Lincoln Achievement Center, a school for 47 special needs students.

The board is still debating whether to close Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School or Lew Wallace High School. Pruitt recommended Dunbar-Pulaski be closed.

For more than two hours, school board members struggled with the task of determing how to stem a $23.7 million deficit. That figure wasn’t discussed in Thursday’s public hearing and came out Saturday after board member Marion Williams pressed chief financial officer Michael Washington for information on the deficit.

Washington painted a dire picture of past overspending and present overstaffing. Cash on hand was so short, the district nearly experienced a “payless” payday recently, he said.

Washington said he picked up a $3.6 million property tax payment check from Lake County last week and used it for the payroll.

“It’s a big problem. We have to choose between paying vendors or payroll. The cash is not sufficient. We have juggled and robbed Peter to pay Paul to keep this school district afloat.”

Washington said if the property tax collection rate remains at a woeful 42 percent, the district could face a $10 million shortfall.

“This is the year,” he said of the school closings. “If we don’t do it now, somebody will do it for us,” Washington said.

School board members haggled and occasionally became testy with each other as they discussed the repair costs for each school considered for closing and how other districts with lower per pupil spending seem to fare better than Gary.

With Webster closing, board member LaBrenda King-Smith said she wouldn’t have a school located within her district. She remained opposed to any closings because she said she hasn’t seen quantitative data.

Leslie Leslie, the district’s insurance agent, said she’s examined the district’s schools to determine their structural deficiencies. “Some of these buildings are really not insurable,” she said.

The number of staff layoffs still hasn’t been determined. Pruitt said she expects more than 200 employees to retire, lessening the blow.

The unknown factor is whether parents will continue to keep their children in the district or opt for one of six charter schools in Gary that might be closer to their neighborhood.

Finally, board member Doretha Rouse talked about the clock ticking on the need to notify affected teachers, staff and parents of school closings now that it’s June.

“We’ve got to do something or get off the pot,” she said. “We have got to be grown folk. They make hard decisions and they live with them.”

Bailly Principal Lucille Washington sat quietly in the audience and breathed a sigh of relief after the meeting.

“I just have to take it one day at a time,” she said. “We had the data to support us. I’m sure the public made a difference.”



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