GARY, Indiana — The Gary School Board backed a plan to ask taxpayers to approve a $51.8 million referendum in May to help bail out the financially troubled school district.
The board voted 6-1 Friday in favor of an amended resolution after the Indiana Department of Local Government and Finance ordered two changes in the wording of a resolution approved Jan. 27. The amended version restates the purpose of the referendum for "funding teaching positions, staff positions, and educational programming."
Interim chief executive financial officer Michael Washington said the district, which closed five schools last year to save money, is $81 million in debt. Indiana Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz described Gary schools as being in "dire circumstances" during a State Board of Education meeting Thursday.
The Indiana Department of Education last year deemed the Gary Community School Corp. to be an at-risk district and embedded Daniel Bundridge as its chief liaison to oversee federally funded programs and increase accountability.
The proposed referendum, which would supplement the district's general fund over a seven-year period, would still need to be approved by several government agencies before it could be placed on the May 5 primary ballot.
State board member Gordon Hendry said during Thursday's meeting that the board keeps hearing about the Gary schools' troubles, and that he was becoming increasingly concerned.
"What are we doing for those children?" he asked. "Maybe it's just a lack of the full information. I don't want it to keep going month after month."
District leaders have said that almost all the school buildings need renovation and that they don't have money to fix them. They have had problems paying vendors, and fell behind on several bills, including transportation for students and pension payments for teachers.
Retired teacher Carlos Tolliver said he has mixed feelings about the referendum and still needs to be convinced.
"We have the highest tax rate in state," he said. "First of all, there must be a clear explanation and picture of what the $51 million will be used for."
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said it's premature for her to voice an opinion on the referendum, saying she needs to talk with school officials.
"I certainly understand the impetus for the referendum. We all know the devastating impact tax caps have had on the ability of government to function," she said. "While all units of government have been driven to efficiency, most astute observers understand that having insufficient dollars to educate or provide services is never optimal."