As Gary Community Schools grapples with a $75 million budget deficit, hard decisions have come to a head. Recently, the Gary School Board members laid off 13 employees and said they will explore running their own transportation system, in order to cut costs.
For the school district in the northwest Indiana city, budget woes are nothing new.
At the beginning of the school year, we visited Gary Community Schools to see how the financial and academic struggles of the district were affecting learning — and how district officials are optimistic the schools can survive.
The series, Community of Opportunity, explored the community and district at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year. On-the-ground and in-the-schools, reporter Rachel Morello laid out the following issues:
The Gary Community School Corporation does need to get better. Student test scores are low, schools are closing. The district is in debt to the tune of roughly $20 million dollars. In addition, the growth of the state’s voucher program and proliferation of the charter school movement have hit the public school district hard. At one time, Gary had a greater percentage of charter schools than any other district in the nation. District leaders estimate about 3,000 kids have left GCSC for other local schools in the past two or three years. To top it all off, many of the statewide policies put in place in Indianapolis in recent years don’t play out so favorably for Gary. The General Assembly approved a new school funding formula that will short GCSC $9 million over the next two years.
School staff and community members expressed hope the schools, and the community in Gary, could turn around to overcome these woes.
Now as the school year ends, the same issues still hang over the district’s head. In the last month, the news about the school district hasn’t showed much of an improvement.
The Chicago Tribune reported a few weeks ago that employee paychecks weren’t issued due to a lack of funding.
School Board President Antuwan Clemons, who heads the board’s budget/finance committee, said the missed pay period was due to cash flow problems. “We didn’t want to bounce any checks,” he said. The checks should be distributed Monday, he said.
The letter told employees the administration and Martin were working hard to avoid a reduction in force this year. However, on Tuesday, the school board laid off 13 employees, including eight secretaries, three information technology department employees, a public relations administrator and a business department assistant.
Clemons said more layoffs are coming. “We have to make sure we live within the means of our income,” he said. “Mr. Martin is making some serious recommendations.”
The staff layoffs are only one of the results of funding issues. Busing in the district could also change going forward, according to The Post-Tribune:
Meanwhile, the school district is examining ways to trim its transportation costs. About 3,800 students ride a bus daily. Its three-year $5 million contract with the Illinois Central Bus Co. expires next month. The district is seeking quotes from other bus companies and Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt said the district is also exploring running its own transportation system.
And while these cuts affect district-wide services like busing and payroll, the district got some good news last week at one of its schools. Roosevelt College and Career Academy will get it’s boiler system repaired after failing this past winter. The repairs will happen because of a $500,000 grant from The Distressed Unit Appeals Board.
The Chicago Tribune reports Jack Martin, the district’s financial consultant, is proposing dramatic cuts going forward:
Martin said he’s recommending the closing of four schools, but the school board has yet to act on any closings this year. It voted to close the Watson Boys Academy last year but Martin said “political will” kept the school open.
He expects finances to be tight by the end of July when the district’s $15 million DUAB loan is used up. He said paying health insurance, payroll and utilities will be a challenge. The district is on a payment plan with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service after it filed liens on schools totaling $6.8 million because the district withheld payroll taxes.
Martin said he’s proposed laying off 45 teachers and coupled with retirements, he said about 195 people will come off the payroll at the end of July, but he said some severance payments were considerable, citing a $20,000 payment to an administrator. The layoffs will leave the district with about 600 employees, he said.
The end of the fiscal year in July will give a clearer picture of what the school district’s financial situation and how it can move forward into the 2016-2017 school year.