State lawmakers are weighing a bill that continues state control of the distressed Gary Community School Corp. with a state-appointed seven-member board and ends collective bargaining rights for teachers.

Under House Bill 1187, a new board would remain an advisory one with governing responsibility still resting with the state Distressed Unit Appeal Board.

Secretary of Education Katie Jenner would name all seven board members. The city council and mayor could make a recommendation to Jenner from a pool of three candidates. Three of the board members don’t have to live in Gary.

House Ways and Means chairman Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, is the bill’s author. He’s also the lawmaker of previous takeover bills in 2017 and 2018.

No hearing date has been set yet in the committee, Brown said Monday.

Brown modeled House Bill 1187 after a takeover bill in the distressed Muncie school district. “As we looked at how Muncie has transitioned from state control, we wanted to take from the similarities,” Brown said.

Language in that 2018 law, House Bill 1315, called for the president of Ball State University to appoint school board members and left the seven-member board to decide if it would collectively bargain with teachers. The new school board opted against collective bargaining. The district escaped state control in 2018.

Brown said the changes led to a turnaround in enrollment and academics in Muncie. “More kids are wanting to come to Muncie,” he said. “The same thing is happening in Gary.”

Gary school officials said earlier this year enrollment had increased slightly. The district is still struggling to improve academics.

Brown’s bill stunned Gary Democratic lawmakers, who weren’t aware it was being crafted. The lawmakers and union officials thought they were headed toward a compromise to end years of state control because a $22 million operating budget deficit has been erased and long-term debt was decreasing.

State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, called the bill racist.

“We’re Blacks, Democrats and low income without resources to fight. But we’re not going to lay down and just take this,” Smith said.

“I’m sorry they feel that way,” said Brown who said he mirrored the legislation to the Muncie school district bill.

Opponents to Brown’s bill are mounting a campaign to win over lawmakers. They plan to take a busload of protesters to Indianapolis soon to oppose its passage, Smith said.

GlenEva Dunham, president of the Gary Teachers Union and the Indiana Federation of Teachers, hopes the effort can kill the bill.

“I consider the union the voice of teachers, parents and students. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” said Dunham. “We don’t agree with the bill.”

After voters approved a $72.1 million referendum last year, teachers received their first raise in more than a decade. Last month, they came to terms with a contract that provided a 3% raise. The proposed bill would end collective bargaining after June 30, 2023.

Dunham said union leaders met Sunday with Mayor Jerome Prince, city council members, county officials and local lawmakers to develop a strategy to derail the bill. Representatives from the Urban League of Northwest Indiana and the Gary chapter of the NAACP also attended.

“Hopefully, it will be killed,” said Dunham. “We have our national and state unions on board with 27 locals … It’s Gary now, but if you can write with a pen and say we’re going to do away with your union, it could happen anywhere.”

Brown hasn’t heard from opponents of his bill yet.

“I anticipated some opposition,” he said. “I always listen to people … but let’s think this through. How did Gary get to $100 million in debt,” he said of the district’s long-term debt that led to its distressed status.

“I think fundamentally we have to look at how that change is going forward so we don’t get back to that debt.”

When the state took over the Gary district, it hired MGT Consulting of America LLC, to run the district under a three-year contract.

Brown’s bill requires the state to contract with an emergency manager for one additional year after Gary leaves distressed status.

The state authorized payments to MGT totaling $3.07 million in fiscal year 2021 and $3.35 million in 2022. The bill estimated an additional year would cost between $3 and $4 million.

At a Monday breakfast forum, a district official said it became aware of the bill last week.

“We are committed to continuing our devotion to students and teachers regardless of how this bill turns out,” said Kimberly Bradley, chief academic officer. “We’re not politicians. Our thing is education so that’s what we’ll continue to stay focused on.”
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