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Top left, clockwise, Influencers: Indiana State Rep. Vernon Smith, Former Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, Gary Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chuck Hughes, and Trinity MB Church Pastor Dwight Gardner

Will 3rd time work the magic for Gary school referendum

Contributed By:The 411 News

We're going to treat it like a political campaign, MGT says

Gary's school district is working hard to encourage voters to approve a $71.2 million tax increase over the next 8 years.

The referendum question on November's ballot is coming after 2 prior ones failed, in 2015 and 2016.

Naturally opposed to the referendum are homeowners not wanting to see their property taxes go up, but Gary's school district faces a second and unique opponent -- very vocal members of the school board who have been disenfranchised by the state takeover.

In this year's referendum, two board members, Carlos Tolliver and Robert Buggs are leading the charge, urging a no vote. Tolliver was an opponent of the 2016 referendum and used it as an issue in his 2016 election campaign to win a seat on the school board.

Both are on the November 3rd ballot seeking re-election to the board. Buggs is unopposed. Tolliver is in the race against Akilia McCain.

Those school board members use arguments of mismanagement by the state, poor school academic performance under state control, and the public's distrust of the school takeover. "Now the state wants us to bail them out," Buggs says.

Opposition to the referendum was expected by MGT, the state's partner managing the school district. MGT is overseen by the state's Distressed Unit Appeal Board. At their July meeting, Eric Parish, an MGT vice president said the time was right to try another referendum. "With more voters in presidential elections and the right messaging, I believe we can get it done."

Gary teachers will get a raise; their first in 10 years. Funds will go to programs for students in pre-school, the arts, and athletics. Schools will see more support for security and safety issues, like mental health and counseling.

"We will treat it like a political campaign," Parish said. "We will reach out to community leaders and educate the voters on why we are doing this."

And that's the message voters are getting. They are seeing their state elected officials, city council members, teachers, and the clergy come on board to support the property tax increase.

State Rep. Vernon Smith supports the referendum, although he has criticized the takeover and MGT. Smith is a revolving but non-voting member of the DUAB and has worked to make the DUAB and MGT more accountable to Gary residents.

Smith's influence was seen in the renewal of MGT's contract. DUAB gave MGT a 2-year renewal instead of 3 years as the original contract. The focus will be on academics instead of finances. MGT will be penalized financially if it doesn't meet goals for community engagement.

Smith pushed the DUAB to allow public comment at its meetings, where none was allowed before.

At a virtual meeting recently, Pastor Dwight Gardner told why the churches are supporting the tax increase. "Everything that happened in Gary has happened to the churches. When Gary lost half of its population, the churches lost members. What happens to schools happens to churches. So goes the city, so goes the church."

GlenEva Dunham, president of the local Gary Teachers Union and State President of the American Federation of Teachers compared today's campaign with the one in 2016.

"It was only about 7 of us and we started the campaign late. The district didn't communicate what it would do with the money," Dunham said.

Today is the exact opposite, Dunham said. "There is a 20-person committee that meets twice a week. We started early. And the public knows how the district will spend the money."

This time, social media is playing a big part.

Dunham said the union has brought in an Indianapolis marketing firm that worked with 16 other Indiana school districts to gain approval of their school referendums.

"We've developed a quick response team to reply to negative comments and criticisms," Dunham said. "And there's more coming to engage the public in October."

Story Posted:09/11/2020

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