Jackie Lee strolled up to a small podium, adjusted her mic, then made quick work of the three minutes she’d been given to speak: “Good evening, I’m here to oppose them closing the middle schools,” she said.
Tuesday marked the first meeting with a traditional public comment section since a controversial plan to close Gary’s last public middle schools was proposed. Mike Raisor, the Gary Community School Corporation’s emergency manager, introduced the plan at last month’s board meeting. Raisor argued that closing Bailly and Gary middle schools would save the district $4 million, which would improve the district’s long-term financial sustainability. Low enrollment and underutilization of the buildings were also cited as factors in the proposal to close the schools.
Backlash was swift. During recent community forums and learning sessions, residents expressed concerns about a proposal that would add sixth-grade students to elementary schools and have seventh and eighth-graders attend West Side, the district’s only high school. A significant worry for many residents and parents revolved around the safety and socialization of middle schoolers attending schools alongside high school students. Some also fear that shuttering both will result in more abandoned buildings in the city.
But, these sessions included small group discussions rather than a public comment section that people were used to. The confusion led to a group of people, including parents and students, walking out of the first session after being told they couldn’t speak by the district’s lawyer, Shelice Tolbert.
Tuesday’s board meeting offered some a familiar return of pace, with a handful of residents taking the opportunity to address district administration and the appointed school board — which won’t have authority over the district until next school year.
At the podium, Lee was clear about her discontent with the administration, particularly Raisor. She referenced a past attempt to combine middle and high school — a decision that prompted her to take her granddaughter out of the district. Lee dismissed the financial rationale behind the proposal, contending that the problem did not stem from a lack of money.
“The problem is MGT. It’s always been MGT.”
Looking squarely at Raisor, an employee of the Florida-based firm MGT Consulting that manages GCSC, she said, “You came in here and destroyed a district with your lies.”
Raisor kept his head down. There was little patience for anyone who attempted to speak even a few seconds beyond the three-minute time limit. When resident Lovetta Tindal asked to add another thought to her comments, Raisor named the next speaker and Tolbert repeatedly told her time was up.
“Violation of rules is not a great example for our students,” Tolbert said.
Michaela Spangenburg of the Gary Education Coalition fired back, “I’d like to know what kind of example any of this sets for our students,” eliciting applause from attendees.
For the rest of the meeting, Raisor rarely faced the crowd of residents, choosing instead to primarily focus on board members — even as he offered an update on the closure plan he proposed.
When Raisor introduced the proposal last month, he said a decision would be made in December. However, at Tuesday’s meeting, he revised this timeline and said more time was needed to fully assess the “financial implications” of all the options the district has proposed.
Alternatives to closing Bailly and Gary include closing Bethune Early Childhood Development Center and adding early education students to elementary schools, merging both middle schools, and making elementary schools K-8.
“We’ve now gotten the community’s input, and we’ll continue to get it around this, but we want to — I don’t want to say pause — but we want to give this the due diligence it deserves and to have all the scenarios for the board and community and DUAB (Distressed Unit Appeal Board) to consider as the stakes are so high for the community and for the school district,” Raisor said.
But, some community members aren’t planning to slow down when it comes to opposing closures. Gary’s Black Lives Matter chapter recently held a meeting where residents continued to vocalize their reservations about the proposal and planned to create a petition against it.
Following Tuesday’s meeting, Lee said she felt that administrators “did not want to interact with us at all.”
Lee said she wasn’t hopeful, just tired. She said it’s time for MGT to leave.
“Enough is enough,” she said.