After voters rejected a school tax hike in November, Lake Ridge school district officials said Monday the Hosford Park Elementary School will be closed and more than 20 jobs will be cut. Within three years, it could also lose its school bus routes.

Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley outlined the plan during a community meeting. At least 200 attended, most acknowledging they were school employees.

Cuts will hit the whole school system, she said. Hosford Park Elementary will close by the end of the 2019-20 school year. Up to 13 teachers and four administrators could be eliminated.

“This is like a death,” Principal Eric Worthington said, his voice cracking.

By August, Hosford Park’s kindergarten to fourth grade students will be shipped to Longfellow Elementary. Fifth grade will be moved to the middle school in a separate wing.

With Hosford Park, they would find some way to repurpose the building, Johnson-Shirley said. With nearly 1,800 students, the school district would be down to three schools.

School bus routes could be drastically reduced as soon as October 2021, Business Manager Laura Hubinger said. State law requires a three-year waiting period before those cuts are made. Lake Ridge notified the Indiana Department of Education of their plan in October, she said.

Buffered by a storm of financial woes -- declining state funding, low property tax collection rates, a Lake County fiscal property tax cliff in 2020, two failed referendums -- Lake Ridge has no choice but to seek cuts, officials said.

Last fall, Calumet Township voters defeated two referendums worth $66 million -- $44.3 million to patch up, upgrade schools and $22.4 million to shore up its budget. Without that infusion of cash, it cannot afford to maintain its current services, officials said.

The November vote was defeated by a 3-2 margin.

Several speakers put much of the blame for Lake Ridge’s finances squarely on lawmakers in Indianapolis -- who could finish the legislative session as early as April 24.

“Unfortunately in this state, Republicans have shown they are not friends to public education,” Lake Ridge Federation of Teachers President Dan Brugioni said.

The district has cut more than $5 million in recent years, Hubinger said. The school board voted to close Grissom Elementary in 2013. It is now a privately owned Christian school.

The money it will lose to property tax caps alone is snowballing: $1.6 million in 2018, $1.9 million projected in 2019 and up to $3 million in 2020, she said.

“There was no other choice but to go to referendum,” Hubinger said. “We waited until we needed to.”

Lake Ridge plans to cut seven elementary teachers and six middle or high school teachers; four administrators, and a counselor. Each employee getting a pink slip will be notified within a window required by state law -- between May 2 and June 30, Johnson-Shirley said.

It also looks to cut support staff including three library aides, a clerical worker, certified nursing assistant and trim its school resource officer budget. It would also outsource adult education, cut custodians, and reduce middle school supervision.

Total savings is expected around $1.5 million, Hubinger said.

Elementary class sizes were about 22.5 kids per teacher, Johnson-Shirley said. It could go up to 27 or 30 per teacher with additional instructional aides.

Worthington said after the meeting he expects to be reassigned. With Lake Ridge for 23 years, he received a standing ovation after his remarks.

“It’s hard for me to stand here with my voice cracking because this is someplace I come to every day,” he told the crowd.

Hosford Park was “not just a place, it’s a spirit,” he said. “We are going to do right by your kids” no matter where they go to school.

Parent Esther Villalobos, who brought her two young children, said she was concerned about overcrowding and looming cuts to buses. Homeschooling could be a future option, she said.

She also said Lake Ridge needed to improve communication, upset that she only found out about the meeting that day when her child’s bus driver handed her a flyer.

Unlike the Gary Community School Corp., Lake Ridge is not eligible to go to the Distressed Unit Appeal Board in Indianapolis, which provides loans, but also places strict controls over its spending and operations.

“This is not our first rodeo with this,” Johnson-Shirley said of proposed cuts. “We are hoping for the best, we are planning for the worst.”

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