Gary school closing move deferred

Decision left to next school chief, board

- By Carole Carlson

Gary’s next superinten­dent and school board will determine whether to combine its middle schools into the West Side Leadership Academy high school building or pursue other cost-cutting options.

On Tuesday, district manager Mike Raisor changed course on his previous draft recommenda­tion to close the middle schools and send seventh and eighth graders to the high school.

Raisor said his recommenda­tion, aimed at keeping the district financiall­y solvent and improve academic outcomes, proved unpopular.

“We said we would listen to the community, and the feedback was really clear,” said Raisor, an official with MGT Consulting, the statehired education manager that’s run the district since 2017 when it fell under state control because of its perilous finances.

Gary is expected to exit state control in July when a new superinten­dent and school board gain governing authority.

“If this decision has to be made, we wanted it to be made by the community, not by MGT in its last six months in the district, and not made by DUAB,” said Raisor, referring to the state Distressed Unit Appeal Board which oversees district finances and academics.

In October, Raisor unveiled a financial sustainabi­lity plan anchored by his draft recommenda­tion to close underutili­zed Bailly and Gary middle schools.

Both Bailly and Gary middle schools have enrollment­s under 400 students. He said Gary Middle School’s utilizatio­n rate was 51%, while Bailly’s was 58%.

From fifth to sixth grade, Raisor said officials see a drop in enrollment. “There’s not an extreme amount of satisfacti­on with what is going on there,” he said.

West Side, the district’s lone high school, has an enrollment of 947 or a utilizatio­n rate of 53%.

Raisor warned the district’s surplus margin would decrease once federal relief money ended and a state common loan measure expires next year. He based his recommenda­tion, in part, on the district’s enrollment of about 3,700 students.

However, enrollment has steadily increased since the fall count. Raisor said he expected more than 3,900 students in next week’s spring count. The state awards the district about $11,000 for each additional student.

That provides a little financial breathing room, he said.

Other factors leading to Raisor’s decision was the creation of a $4 million rainy day fund made possible by the tedious job of reconcilin­g past funds, including some with unused balances. The district required state permission to do the reconcilia­tion.

Also, the district saved $200,000 by handling snow removal itself instead of contractin­g the work out. Money was also saved in new security measures at vacant buildings and in other efficiency moves.

Raisor said he still supports the grades 7-12 consolidat­ion into one building. “We will leave that with the board and new administra­tion,” he said.

Hovering in the future is the need for a renewed $72.1 million operating referendum in 2028, Raisor said.

He said there would be a surplus budget through 2027-28. If nothing changes, the district would incur deficit spending in 2029 and approach insolvency in 2030, he said. Raisor said the district still has to post balanced budgets until the 2028-29 school year to escape state scrutiny.

If the district opts to renew its referendum, however, it would have to share funding with seven charter schools in the city, under a new state law. Raisor said that would leave the district with about 40% of the $72.1 million.

Raisor said funding, earlier targeted to renovate West Side for junior high students, would be used to upgrade restrooms, locker rooms, and science labs at West Side and for improvemen­ts at Beveridge Elementary.

The remaining COVID19 funding will go toward establishi­ng a science of reading curriculum and assessment. “These are things that can have years of impact from one-time funds,” he said.

Meanwhile, board member and superinten­dent search chairwoman Danita Johnson said there’s a March 9 applicatio­n deadline for prospectiv­e candidates.

The board is working with Chicago-area search firm BWP & Associates.

She said there will be community focus groups organized to help guide the board in selecting a superinten­dent.

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