Emotions, tinged with anger and frustration, marked the final meeting of the Gary School Board on Tuesday.
Next month, the board becomes an unpaid “advisory” unit, allowed to meet four times a year. Its next meeting is Sept. 12.
Emergency manager Peggy Hinckley won’t have to meet with the advisory board. Instead, she’ll be required to hold monthly public meetings to update citizens on school business.
The Republican-dominated legislature passed back-to-back laws in 2017 and 2018 that leaves Gary citizens without representation by a school board.
“We are not the only school district that’s financially distressed, we just happen to be the only one that’s black,” said board member Robert Buggs.
“If we were in any other neighborhood, we wouldn’t be having the same dialogue.”
The Gary Community School Corp. landed in distressed status after failing to pay its debts so it could keep school buildings open. It ran up an accumulated debt of more than $100 million and a monthly deficit of more than $18 million.
The state stepped in with a bailout and offered loans to allow the district to make payroll. It installed an emergency manager with orders to right-size staff and buildings to be in line with enrollment.
Hinckley’s recent action to outsource custodial service with Alpha Building Maintenance, of Homer Glen, Ill., was estimated by officials to save the district about $907,000. Hinckley withdrew from a contract with custodians in Service Employees International Union Local 73, saying they could apply for their old jobs with Alpha. She said the district would pay their wages, benefits and vacation time until the end of the month.
Hinckley also said secretaries would have to reapply for their jobs and she would no longer recognize their union. Under state law, Hinckley said the only labor group school districts are required to bargain with are teachers.
She said secretaries who are retained must be proficient in technology.
“We did training in Excel (Microsoft) and SunGard. Some still didn’t come even though it’s required. We need people who can use these systems. We can’t award positions on seniority. We need people to use job skills for today,” Hinckley said.
School secretary Windy Booker said secretaries dedicated many years of service to the district, even though they went a decade without raises. “A lot of us have kids and we’re taking them with us and we know a lot of other people in the community, too. It’s very unfair.”
Once she finished with her report, Hinckley and her team left the meeting as the public comment period began. That drew criticism from union members in the audience and board members.
Board president Nellie Moore said a 2017 school takeover law allows the emergency manager to leave after giving the report. Chief financial officer Leonard Moody said he and Hinckley were leaving to attend an education conference in Carmel.
“They’re just throwing the unions out after 50 to 60 years,” said an angry Alice Bush, a former Local 79 SEUI negotiator who’s now a consultant for the union. “They’re privatizing the Gary Community School Corp.”
Bush said Hinckley bargained in bad faith.
“We’re getting smushed like a little roach by the state of Indiana’s right wing forces.”
In signing off, board members sympathized with union members, but one board member said the cuts were necessary.
“No one wants to be the bad guy,” said Darling Pleasant. “But we cannot continue at the pace we are going.”
Board president Nellie Moore encouraged the audience to vote.