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Gary’s Disappearing Public Schools

It’s another busy day for students in Nikki Dates’ fifth grade class at Jefferson Elementary School in Gary, Indiana. 

Dates has a lot to cover -- she teaches every subject from this one classroom: “One class. One person. All day,” she said.

Dates is a product of Gary's school system and came back to Gary after college to begin her teaching career. She’s been at it for 16 years, with the last nine at Jefferson.

“These are my people,” said Dates, who appreciates the “sense of being able to give back to my community.”

But Dates is finding it increasingly difficult to do that as Gary schools struggle to stay afloat financially. The school where she taught before Jefferson was shuttered. Now, Jefferson is facing the same fate. 

In December, the school board voted to close Jefferson and two other school district facilities at the end of the academic year to save money. 

It’s just the latest cost-cutting effort for a district drowning in red ink. By June, Gary’s accumulated debt is expected to reach $101 million. 

In the last two years, Gary has had to close six buildings amid declining enrollment, dwindling tax revenue and competition from public charter schools. 

The school system is struggling make payroll each month. It delayed checks to 700 employees, mostly teachers, in November. March is also likely to be a problem, school district staff said last week at a Gary School Board meeting. 

It wasn’t always this way

Gary’s public school system was once one of the largest in Indiana and a model nationwide. 

It educated a Nobel prize winning economist, an Oscar-winning actor, successful business leaders, entertainers and athletes. 

“The Gary Community School Corporation is experiencing an unprecedented financial crisis unlike any school corporation has experienced in the state of Indiana,” Indiana State Sen. Eddie Melton told an education committee at the Indiana Statehouse this month. His district includes Gary.

“The district is struggling on a day-to-day basis to ensure payroll is met and that critical vendors, such as health insurance and bus services, are paid,” the Democrat said. 

He and other Hoosier lawmakers are searching for solutions for Gary, including greater funding, forgiving outstanding state loans or appointing a fiscal monitor. 

But none will fix two of Steel City’s greatest problems: industry decline and population loss. 

Since 1970, some 100,000 residents -- almost half the city’s population -- have left Gary. Only about 77,000 remain, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Gary has been bleeding jobs, especially at the steel mills, for decades. 

Big employers like U.S. Steel are still around, but its workforce has shrunk over the years. And, the huge steel facility can’t produce fat property tax checks for the school system because a decade-old state property tax cap limits how much the Gary schools can collect.

Declining funding

The cap has caused tax revenues to plummet all over the state, but no community was hit harder than Gary because of its reliance on the steel industry. Then, a recent effort to raise property taxes by $8 million a year was narrowly rejected by Gary voters in November.

Those problems have drained Gary of students and the needed tax dollars to run a healthy school system. 

“When I first came to Gary in 1964, there were over 40 schools in the city,” longtime Gary school board member Nellie Moore explained. “We had about 40,000 children.”

Today, there are fewer than two dozen schools and school-related buildings the district maintains but less dollars to do so. On Feb. 14, the school board voted to lay off 11 custodians.

Gary’s schools have suffered while enrollment at Gary’s public charter schools has soared.

“There is a connection between the proliferation of charter schools and the need to stabilize the Gary Community Schools Corporation,” said Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson. 

Every child who leaves Gary’s public schools for a charter takes with them tax dollars that the city could spend on its schools. 

In 2006, Gary schools had about 12,000 students. Today, the traditional public schools serve less than 6,000. Another 5,500 are enrolled in charter schools in Gary.

“I believe in school choice,” Freeman-Wilson told the senate committee on Feb. 2. “I think our job right now is to make sure that every choice that a parent has is a viable and a quality choice. And right now that means working to shore up the traditional public school corporation in the city of Gary.”

A bulletin board inside Jefferson Elementary School at 601 Jackson St. in Gary, Indiana.(Michael Puente/WBEZ)

Back at Jefferson Elementary, principal Michael Buckner walks the halls trying to keep spirits high. 

“The morale is low right now,” Buckner said. “And we’re doing everything we can to conduct business as usual.” 

Jefferson is more than just a school in this struggling community. Besides providing breakfast and lunch for students, the building acts as a sort of community center, even providing services to parents, like computer training and job search assistance. 

Though the decision to close Jefferson has been made, Buckner is still hoping his school could be saved. 

“I truly believe if we can really make a turn around and show higher test scores and better behavior from the kids, they might have to reconsider closing Jefferson,” Buckner said. “I’m hoping and praying for that to happen.”

Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @MikePuenteNews.

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