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Race can't be ignored in takeovers of Gary, Muncie schools, civic leaders say

May 13, 2018

As lawmakers prepare to extend control over two public school districts, some civic leaders are questioning the disparate treatment of Gary, a majority-black district, and Muncie, a predominantly white one.

A House bill is expected to speed through Indiana’s special legislative session on Monday, having received support from Republicans, who make up supermajorities in both chambers. Under the bill, Gary would remain under the control of an emergency manager, while Muncie will be overseen by Ball State University and eligible for loans. Muncie’s elected school board will be replaced by an appointed one, and Gary’s board will be demoted to an advisory body.

Dwight Gardner, a pastor from Trinity Baptist Church in Gary, said the different treatment sets up a double standard that awards Muncie opportunities denied Gary. Gardner was one of several Gary residents who traveled to Indianapolis earlier this week to give testimony to the legislative council, a group of legislative leaders who met to make recommendations about the bills for the special session.

“Legislation adopted for ‘these people’ in ‘that place’ is how Jim Crow became law of the land,” Gardner said. He also took issue with Gary losing its elected board. “The right to vote to select your own representation is a right of what we call freedom.”

Republican legislative leaders pointed out that there are major differences between the financial situations in Gary and Muncie. That, they said, is the reason for the differences in plans for the two districts. Gary’s financial situation is more severe and longstanding, and its facilities are in worse condition than those in Muncie.

“Their circumstances are not exactly the same,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma. “Each one requires different assistance.”

Last year, both districts were taken over by the state following reports of financial mismanagement and requests for help from Gary officials. It was the first time Indiana took control of entire districts, rather than individual schools.

Under House Bill 1315, Muncie would also be able to ask for an interest-free state loan and have its elected school board turn into an appointed board created by Ball State University trustees. It would also be freed from some state requirements about teacher training, and Ball State could decide whether to let teachers keep their union. The Muncie provisions could help the district shed some of the stigma around state takeover, although critics and Democrats from Muncie still believe the plan is too aggressive and takes away too much local power.

Gary would continue to be run by its emergency manager, who would no longer have to consult with the mayor and school board, as has been required until now. The school board would also be demoted to an advisory board that could meet publicly no more than four times per year.

During the recent legislative council hearing, much emphasis was placed on helping Muncie get to a point where it could recruit back its 1,600 students lost to other schools. No such opportunity was discussed in regards to Gary.

That wasn’t lost on Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who said that she thinks “wholeheartedly” that race is a factor in the debate over this bill.

“I just found that extremely offensive,” she said. “We have 5,000 kids who don’t go to school in the Gary schools. Are you saying that it’s OK to have charter schools in Gary, but not in Muncie?”

Freeman-Wilson, who took office in 2012, said she isn’t surprised race hasn’t come up, but she thinks frank, straightforward discussions about how it intertwines with policy would be helpful.

“I rarely talk about race because I know that when you do, it immediately turns people off,” Freeman-Wilson said.

In Gary, 93 percent of the district’s 5,228 students are black, 3.1 percent are multiracial, 2.8 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent are white. In contrast, in Muncie, a district with 5,215 students, 60.5 percent are white, 21.2 percent are black, 12.4 percent are multiracial, and 4.6 percent are Hispanic.

Gary Public Schools has struggled for years with declining enrollment, financial mismanagement, and a staggering debt that has grown to more than $100 million. Last year, more than 60 percent of students living in Gary went to schools outside the district, representing potentially tens of millions of dollars in lost state revenue.

Muncie, too, has struggled to keep budgets balanced as students have left the district. The mismanagement of a recent bond issue, where money was improperly spent, alerted lawmakers to Muncie’s problems.

The legislative council recommended that the bill move ahead. It will be one of five included in Monday’s special session. Gov. Eric Holcomb called on lawmakers to reconvene because they were unable to finish their work—including a decision on House Bill 1315—during the regular session, which adjourned in March. Democrats have lambasted the move as a waste of taxpayer dollars, and they’ve remained opposed to the bill.

Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat who represents Gary, said this isn’t the first instance where he’s felt that Gary hasn’t seen the state support and consideration other cities have been afforded. However, he and Freeman-Wilson both acknowledged that the city is partially responsible for its current economic problems, along with having to deal with the outfall from the subprime lending crisis and the loss of major industries and jobs.

“I’ve seen no city or community in the state of Indiana that has experienced the economic devastation that Gary has experienced,” Melton said. “It seems like there’s always an exception when it comes to how we deal with northwest Indiana, Lake County, and Gary in particular. We’re Hoosiers, too.”

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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