Takeover of Gary, Muncie, could spell problems for other schools

It’s tempting to think Indiana House Bill 1315 is a concern only for people in Muncie and Gary. But if state officials can abolish local control of Muncie and Gary community schools because of financial problems, they could do the same for your local district.

“There are real stakes here for a number of districts,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association. “They’re seeing that, even though we’re not Gary or Muncie, what happened to them could happen to us.”

HB 1315 doubles down on 2017 legislation that enabled the state to intervene in the Muncie and Gary districts and turn their operation over to emergency managers appointed by a state board.

Most dramatically, it would hand the operation of Muncie Community Schools over to Ball State University and turn it into a charter-like district exempt from state laws on curriculum, transportation and collective bargaining for teachers. In Gary, the bill would convert the elected local school board to an advisory committee that could meet no more than four times a year.

Legislative Democrats and teachers’ unions have been pushing back against the bill, which has been approved by the House. But Ball State and the Republican supermajority seem to strongly support it. The best hope for slowing it down may be via amendments this week in a Senate committee.

The school boards association, for example, is suggesting changes to preserve a semblance of local control. It would let the Gary school board continue to set district policy, require members to live in the district and let the board meet more frequently. In Muncie, it would require members of the Ball State-appointed school board to live in the district and require the board to appoint a superintendent.

Another part of the bill would set up procedures for school districts to be put on a “watch list” if the state determines they’re developing financial problems. The school boards association wants to give districts a chance to clean up their act before they are targeted for state intervention.

“Before they are put on the watch list,” Spradlin said, “we want a district to be notified, flagged, and given a window of time to establish a corrective action plan, and to make progress on these actions.”

What happened?

Gary and Muncie are fading industrial cities that have seen long-term trends of factory closings, a shrinking tax base, population losses and declining enrollment in public schools.

That’s especially true of Gary. Once dubbed the City of the Century, it had a population of 180,000 in 1960; now it’s at 80,000. Just from 2011 to 2017, Gary Community Schools lost about half their enrollment and more than half of operational funding.

Recent changes in state school funding formulas hurt both districts, as lawmakers shifted priorities to growing suburban districts. School choice has also hurt. Gary loses over 60 percent of its prospective students, most of them to charter schools. Muncie loses students to neighboring school districts.

Both districts have closed dozens of schools and reduced budgets to “right-size.” Critics say school boards waited too long to cut spending and were too generous with pay and benefits.

In Muncie, budget problems came to a head when a $10 million bond issue to pay for building projects was instead used to paper over deficits in operating funds. That led to finger-pointing over whether former administrators, the school board or the teachers’ union was to blame.

Ball State enters the picture

It’s not clear who came up with the idea that Ball State should take over Muncie Community Schools, but when the proposal first appeared in January, Republican legislators and first-year Ball State President Geoffrey Mearns jumped on it. But the rollout was either botched or thoughtless. Democrats who represent Muncie in the legislature weren’t told anything. Neither was the city’s mayor.

The details of how this would work are far from certain. Ball State says it wants two years to build community support and develop a plan for the schools. The university says it won’t spend its own resources on the school district; and resources are one thing the district clearly needs.

Ball State manages Burris Lab School and the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities, a residential school for gifted students. Those low-poverty schools are a far cry from Muncie Community, where over three-fourths of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

The university also authorizes 27 charter schools, and the record there isn’t reassuring. About half of the schools were rated D or F by the state in 2016-17. Only one received an A.

In a bit of irony, Ball State authorizes 11 charter schools in Northwestern Indiana, contributing to the loss of enrollment and revenue for Gary Community Schools.

Mearns, the Ball State president, makes an impassioned case for the proposal, but this plan is breaking new ground. The closest thing I can find to a precedent is an arrangement in which Boston University managed Chelsea Public Schools in Massachusetts for 20 years. That deal was apparently requested by the school district, not imposed by the state.

More typically, universities are getting out of the business of operating K-12 schools. According to Education Week, the number of laboratory schools, public schools operated by universities often in connection with their teacher-training programs, has declined by two-thirds since the 1960s.

Who’s next?

Ball State and Gary are far from the only school districts that that have struggled under the weight of flat or decreased state funding, property-tax caps and the loss of students to school choice.

The Indianapolis Star last fall created its own watch list of school districts that are at risk financially, relying on five red flags: declining enrollment, failed property-tax referendums, lost funding from tax caps, high poverty and reduced revenue from the state school funding formula.

At the top of its list of financially struggling districts, and possibly most at risk of state takeover: Anderson, Crawford County, East Chicago, Elwood, Michigan City, Randolph Eastern and Austin. Other districts, including Indianapolis Public Schools, weren’t far behind.

HB 1315 is on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s agenda at 9 a.m. Thursday. If it’s to advance, the bill needs to be approved by the committee this week and by the Senate by March 6.

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One thought on “Takeover of Gary, Muncie, could spell problems for other schools

  1. Pingback: Secrecy provisions in ‘distressed schools’ bill go too far | School Matters

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