Gary to close Lew Wallace, five other schools
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org/302-0949 June 3, 2014 4:52PM
It was standing-room-only at Gary School Board meeting on school closings Tuesday, June 3, 2014. | Carole Carlson~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 5, 2014 6:18AM
GARY — Nearly 2,200 students could land in new schools in the fall after the Gary School Board voted Tuesday to close six of its 17 schools.
The city’s school district, once one of the largest in Indiana, is facing a $27.3 million budget deficit and a very uncertain future.
Following heated arguments from the audience that packed into the board’s committee room, board members voted 4-2 to close the Lew Wallace STEM Academy, Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School, Watson Academy for Boys, Brunswick and Webster elementary schools and the Lincoln Achievement Center. Watson will become a “school within a school” at the Bailly Preparatory Academy or Williams Elementary.
Board president Rosie Washington missed Tuesday’s meeting because she was hospitalized with an undisclosed illness.
The drastic changes in the final weeks of the school year drew fire from the public and from two board members.
“To receive the information at the last minute is an injustice to everyone,” said member LaBrenda King-Smith, who voted against the closings. “To put this kind of pressure on stakeholders is unfair.”
King-Smith leveled criticism at schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt’s administration, saying it failed to communicate with the public on the closings.
“Morale is low for good reasons. Effective leadership is key moving forward. The problem for me is a lack of planning,” she said.
After the meeting, Michael Washington, the school system’s chief financial officer, said he didn’t have an estimate on how much money would be saved by the closings. He said it would depend on the staff who remain and their salaries. Pruitt said she expects more than 200 jobs to be lost in the closings.
Washington said the huge budget deficit the district faces required the tough action.
“We have too many staff,” he said, offering comparisons with neighboring school districts.
Gary Teachers Union president Joseph Zimmerman blamed charter schools and vouchers for eroding the district’s enrollment.
“We have to look at how we got to this point. Across the city, there are 4,000 plus (students) in charter schools. This is the Wal-Martization of our community,” he said, referring to the nonunion charters and private schools.
Zimmerman said charters offer bright new buildings and a safe and orderly environment.
“That’s where we’ve failed,” he said.
From the audience, resident Joe L. White blasted the move to close Brunswick, a neighborhood school of 600 students, telling the board that “you’ll lose 350 children to charter schools.”
A Brunswick teacher said she polled her students and half didn’t plan to return to the Gary schools in the fall.
District officials blamed a 42 percent property tax collection rate, reduced state revenue, declining enrollment and property tax caps for their financial problems. The district is struggling to find money to repair aging buildings and meet its payroll and pension obligations.
The school closings will leave Gary with more high-profile shuttered buildings, just as it receives a $6.6 million grant to demolish abandoned homes.
Under Pruitt, the school district has revamped its technology program and is now offering more computer labs in its schools and will soon be host to two high-powered Internet connections.
But because of serious financial issues and poor academic scores, the Indiana Department of Education has labeled Gary as a high-risk district. The state is managing all of the district’s federal funds and is leading a teacher training program aimed at improving classroom performance.