In a bill designed to deal with state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts, Indiana lawmakers took some small steps Thursday to appease concerns about loss of local control in the financially troubled school districts.
But opponents don’t think the changes go far enough.
Some of those additions approved in an extensive amendment in the Senate Appropriations Committee include keeping the names of troubled districts secret until they are finalized to prevent a mass exit of students and teachers, something community leaders and advocates feared.
Republicans also included a measure that would allow remaining Gary School Board members to fill empty spots on the board, a small concession given that the board is still relegated to an advisory role. The Muncie board would be allowed to elect two local at-large members in 2022.
Many of the changes are small adjustments from earlier versions of the bill, but the original structure is still largely in place: The bill would expand the responsibilities of Gary’s emergency manager, allow Ball State University to take control of Muncie Schools and put in place a new system to help the state identify schools that could be on the way toward significant financial problems. The legislation builds on a Senate bill from last year that allowed the state to take over districts in financial trouble.
Under the new version, additional rules would be placed on districts once they are no longer considered “distressed.” In the two years after a district exits takeover, officials could not propose referendums to raise taxes, issue bonds, adopt a budget, or sign a lease without the approval of the Distressed Unit Appeals Board, a group set up to hear requests from districts they have identified for takeover.
Districts would also have to send copies of annual reports to the appeals board, including audits and financial and personnel reports, for four years after leaving takeover.
But the bill still doesn’t lay out a timeline or specific process for how a district could qualify to leave the state’s control, though the amendment did clarify that a district could petition to exit if it is bringing in more money than it spends. Initially, only an emergency manager could do that.
Democrats were disappointed and frustrated that no deadline for exiting state takeover was included, but seemed resigned to the fact that it would move ahead regardless. House Bill 1315 passed committee 9-4, along party lines.
“There are a number of things that are now in this amendment that make this bill a little better than it was,” said Sen. Karen Tallian, a Democrat from Portage. “However I have to say that we still cannot support the bill as amended.”
Tallian and other Democrats said it was important to know when the boards could be returned to the districts and hold local elections. Voter representation has been a concern for community members and local lawmakers, who believe that they are being disenfranchised by the bill.
“We believe that there should be a way out of this,” Tallian said. “This should not last forever.”
But Sen. Liz Brown, a Republican on the committee, said she wasn’t confident setting an end date was a good idea, particularly for districts that have struggled as much and dealt with as much financial mismanagement as Muncie and Gary.
“I’d love to be able to put a sunset on it,” Brown said. “But looking at the chronology at the Muncie school district, this cesspool didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not going to be righted any time soon.”
The amendment also didn’t resolve concerns from teachers unions that the Muncie district would no longer be required to have union representation. The district would be allowed to have a union if it so chose, but individual schools would be allowed to opt-out.
“We are still very concerned about the actions being taken by the state against local control and teachers’ voice in (House Bill) 1315,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “Although there have been some minor changes, we are still urging legislators to recognize Muncie teachers’ right to collectively organize.”
House Bill 1315 also has new language that would allow certain districts to sell empty school buildings before they set it aside for charter schools to lease or buy. That could open opportunities for Indianapolis Public Schools, the only district the bill’s language applies to, to sell Broad Ripple High School, which is closing this year.
The bill next heads to the full Senate.