An observer at Monday's Legislative Council hearing would have had trouble tracking the debate regarding a state takeover of Gary and Muncie community schools. Proponents and detractors didn't fall neatly among educators, school board members, parents and community members. Where support and opposition for House Bill 1315 break down depends on whether you believe it addresses only Gary and Muncie schools or the legislation sets a troubling precedent for public schools statewide.
Ten Republican members of the 16-member Legislative Council accepted the former view; four Democrats – including the only council member who represents Muncie or Gary voters – believed the latter. Two members were absent.
Now on a fast track to approval at Monday's special session, the bill undoubtedly includes language that should trouble anyone who supports government transparency, local rule and the right to elect our own representatives.
In short, it authorizes the state to remove or strip elected school board members of their authority. It would make the elected Gary board advisory only and restrict it to quarterly public meetings. The bill would turn control of Muncie schools over to Ball State University, where an appointed seven-member board would operate the schools, with only four of the members required to reside within the district.
HB 1315 excuses Ball State from hndreds of regulations placed on other public schools. Billed as an “emergency” measure, the takeover plan is open-ended, with no time limit on Ball State's turnaround effort. In Gary, only an appointed emergency manager is authorized to petition the state to return control of schools to the community.
The Rev. Dwight A. Gardner, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, testified powerfully to what the bill represents for his economically depressed community.
“The right to vote – to select your own representation – is an essential value of what we call 'freedom,' ” he told the council. “Government of the people, for the people and by the people – free people get to participate in their own governance, and if that governance is not for the people there is a structure that's available to the people to change that leadership. That's the greatness of America. ... The legislation you are considering in House Bill 1315 is an attack on that freedom.”
Gardner asked lawmakers to consider Gary residents. “Ask yourself what if your community lost half its population – if 12 pied pipers called 'charter schools' showed up in your city promising to solve your academic challenges and fooled your parents into a buy-in but then succeeded in only leading half your student population away to the land of broken promises and continued poor performance. What would your community be like if your largest corporate taxpayer was allowed to reduce its contribution by 66 percent and to self-assess its assets?”
Directors of the Indiana Broadcasters Association and Hoosier State Press Association addressed language in the bill allowing the state's Distressed Unit Appeals Board and the schools' emergency managers to meet behind closed doors.
HSPA's Steve Key noted the language refers not just to school districts currently in financial distress, but any district with indicators suggesting it might fall into distress.
“By keeping this whole process confidential, it robs the community of the ability to push their school board to accept the help from the (distressed unit) board,” he said. “It robs the public of the ability to speak up on what may be painful options they would prefer over other options, like closing schools or slashing staff or eliminating an entire program.”
On Monday, members of the full General Assembly must decide whether they are rescuing two financially strapped school districts or if they are adopting legislation that thwarts local control, disenfranchises some residents and erodes government transparency. Hoosiers, who will return to the polls on Nov. 6, should weigh the same question.