Secrecy provisions in ‘distressed schools’ bill go too far

Indiana lawmakers may have been trying to do the right thing last week when they created a way for financially struggling school corporations to avoid being flagged for takeover by the state. But they went too far when they made those procedures secret.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to create new exceptions to the state’s public records and open meetings laws, limiting public scrutiny of efforts by local and state officials to turn around a school corporation’s finances before it gets placed on a state watch list.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

As Steve Key of the Hoosier State Press Association pointed out, this isn’t just bad public policy – it’s likely to be counterproductive by blocking public participation in important government decisions.

“To me it’s puzzling,” he said. “It doesn’t allow people in the community to support their school district or push the administration and the school board to turn things around before it gets worse.”

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‘Distressed’ schools lost funding

No wonder Gary and Muncie community schools are distressed. Both Indiana school districts have had their budgets cut dramatically over the past decade. It’s not surprising they’ve struggled to pay the bills.

Muncie’s general fund, the part of the budget that pays educator salaries and most operating expenses, was reduced from $55.4 million to $42.5 million over the past six years, according to figures from the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. That’s a 23 percent cut.

Gary’s decline has been even more stark. Its general fund budget dropped by more than half, from $104.4 million in 2011 to $50.1 million in 2017.

The state declared last year that the districts were financially distressed; oversight of the schools has been turned over to the state’s Distressed United Appeals Board, and they are being run by emergency managers. This year, legislation making its way through the Indiana House would put Ball State University in charge of Muncie Schools. In both cities, elected school boards are being marginalized.

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