Budget crunch forces Gary vote on 5 school closings
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org June 2, 2014 6:34PM
Grass is overgrown at Brunswick Elementary School, Gary. | Carole Carlson~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 4, 2014 6:11AM
GARY — The school board is in a prickly, lose-lose situation as it prepares to determine the fate of five schools proposed for closing.
It’s expected to vote on a closing recommendation at a meeting at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the School Service Center, 620 E. 10th Place.
If the board votes to shutter a quarter of its 16 schools, it risks alienating parents who could counter by sending their children to charter schools or use vouchers to place their children into private schools.
The school district can’t afford more enrollment losses. Officials say about 5,000 students have left since 2008, leaving today’s enrollment at 7,647.
The board is facing a $23.7 million budget deficit this year, and Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt said the school system has lost $100 million in recent years because of declining enrollment and revenue, property tax caps and low property tax collections.
The district has struggled to pay its employee retirement benefits and nearly missed a payday recently. Only “select” vendor service bills are paid on time, with others waiting weeks and months for payment.
It also can’t afford costly repairs for its aging buildings and facilities, like the track at the West Side Leadership Academy deemed unfit by the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
It’s having trouble keeping grass cut at its schools after expending most of its budget clearing snow during the winter. Even an American flag flying over the Lincoln Achievement Center is in tatters.
Leslie Leslie, the district’s insurance agent, said some schools are in such bad shape, they’re uninsurable. She said schools that are closed will come off the district’s insurance policy.
The schools being considered for closure include Brunswick Elementary, 5701 W. 7th Ave.; Webster Elementary, 3720 Pierce St.; Watson Boys Academy, 2065 Mississippi St., and Lincoln Achievement Center, 1988 Polk St.
The board is deciding whether to close Lew Wallace STEM Academy or Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School. The repair price tag at Lew Wallace was estimated at $2.8 million, compared to $960,000 at Dunbar-Pulaski, according to board president Rosie Washington.
Earlier it appeared that Dunbar-Pulaski would close, and Lew Wallace would house a freshman academy and citywide middle school. At a work session Saturday, the school board couldn’t reach a consensus over which school to close. Both schools face state action and June public hearings because of six straight years of poor academic performance.
The harsh winter was hard on school boilers, especially at Roosevelt College and Career Academy, a school taken over by the state for academic reasons.
One frustrated Brunswick parent criticized the board last week, asking why it took so long to announce the closings.
“It’s not like you didn’t know there was a financial problem,” Dawn Jones said.
School officials have a short window now to notify affected teachers and staff and begin transitioning students and staff to other schools.
The decisions are tough ones, acknowledged Washington, a retired Gary teacher, who said she “had no idea of the politics involved with serving on this board.”
“We know it’s going to cost us to keep buildings open,” she said. “We know we’re going to have some folks upset if we close some buildings, but we have to attack the elephant in the room. They’re not easy decisions, but decisions the board must make.”