Angry shouts of “Shame on you!” and “You just destroyed a community!” resounded throughout the room Wednesday as the Hammond school board voted unanimously to accept Superintendent Scott Miller’s proposal to close Clark and Gavit middle/high schools at the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

On Nov. 12, Miller first proposed closing those schools and reassigning students to either Morton High School in the Hessville section of Hammond or the new 340,000-square-foot middle/high school being constructed behind Hammond High School. Miller met with parents and students at Gavit and Clark in separate sessions prior to Wednesday’s vote.

What came as a surprise to the dozens of community members attending Wednesday’s meeting was Miller’s announcement that he and board members Anna Mamala and Carlotta Blake-King had met with the state’s Distressed Unit Appeals Board in Indianapolis because of financial “red flags” in the school district’s 2017-2018 school year. That meeting was not public.

Miller said the Distressed Unit Appeals Board asked school district leaders to prepare a plan for financial solvency to avoid a state takeover. The State of Indiana took over the Gary Community School Corp. and the Muncie Community Schools because of financial problems, he noted.

"I want to avoid state takeover where for-profit companies come in and take over,” the superintendent said Wednesday. “Look at Muncie and look at Gary. Look at results of those decisions.”

Financial consultant Matt Ruess told the board that the district’s projected losses would be $2 million for each of the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. In addition, there will be a loss of $5.1 million in the educational fund at the end of 2024 when the referendum approved by Hammond residents in 2017 runs out.

The proposal approved by the school board is projected to save the district $35.9 million over five years. That proposal also states that Gavit would be sold to Purdue University Northwest and that the City of Hammond would purchase the Clark campus.

“We are in dire straits,” said Blake-King prior to the first public expression section of the board meeting.

Community members spoke out against the proposal before the vote was taken.

“We’re in an unfortunate situation and it breaks my heart,” said Mary Ellen Slazyk. “We’re going to have a mass exodus of students. A lot of houses are going up for sale around Gavit. I blame the ones that left (former Superintendent Walter Watkins and former Board President Deborah White).”

Jan Kopischke, a substitute teacher in the School City of Hammond, and her son, Brian, urged the board to table the proposal.

“Both of your proposals are lousy,” Jan Kopischke said, adding that the data used for the proposals are based on old census reports. “You have a census coming out.”

Brian Kopischke said the decision made Wednesday would cause “a ripple effect that will go on for decades.”

Many of those attending the meeting stormed out after the vote was taken.

Several people spoke after the vote during the second public expression session including Greg Erminger.

“It’s an embarrassment ...,” Erminger said to school board members. “This is some dirty politics going on… You’re selling Clark High School for a piece of grass.”

Miller responded, “I will do everything possible to make this as successful as possible for the School City of Hammond.”

Morton and the new school would have an estimated enrollment of 1,850 high school students and bus transportation would be provided for all students to their new school assignments, according to the approved proposal.

Miller estimated that most Clark, Hammond High and approximately 250 Gavit students would attend the district’s new school. The remaining Gavit students would go to Morton.

In addition, sixth grade students would move back to the 12 elementary schools, which “will require redistricting for staff and student optimization,” according to the proposal, which also states that the current 12 neighborhood elementary schools would be maintained.

In May, the school board voted to close Columbia, Lafayette and Miller elementary schools in a cost-cutting move. That leaves Edison, Franklin, Harding, Hess, Irving, Jefferson, Kenwood, Lincoln, Maywood, Morton, O’Bannon and Wallace elementary schools serving students.

The approved proposal also calls for Scott Middle School and Eggers Middle School to become seventh- and eighth-grade buildings with an estimated 900 to 950 students in each building.
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