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“I voted for this board and now regret more than half of those votes,” said Hammond Morton High School teacher Veronica Bierto.

Hammond school district preparing to cut staff and close schools

Contributed By:The 411 News

A tale of 2 cities, Hammond school city drowning while Hammond civil city thriving

The Tuesday night, March 19th meeting was no different than other meetings this year – an unruly public again voiced frustration at the Hammond Board of School Trustees.

Since the beginning of the year, a large contingent of Hammond teachers, parents and residents have packed school board meetings, driven by unfiltered details of a board plan to close schools and cut teachers.

Board meetings are inundated with outbursts calling for the superintendent’s resignation coupled with loud and angry comments during board discussions. Decision making often moves at a snail’s pace. Police presence is common.

Rumblings and discontent with Hammond’s school board and superintendent percolated during Fall 2023 as November’s General Election neared.

On the ballot, the school district asked voters for an extension of the property tax increase approved in 2017. If the referendum didn’t pass, School City of Hammond Supt. Scott Miller said the district would face a $15 million hole in its annual budget that could lead to school closures and staff cuts.

Voters turned it down. Tensions escalated weeks later when the school district wouldn’t agree to a 1-year contract with its teachers union, the Hammond Teachers Federation Local 394.

The teachers are still without a contract; both sides have filed unfair labor practices with the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board.

School corporations’ finances are monitored by Indiana’s Distressed Unit Appeal Board, the agency that took control of the Gary Community School Corp. after that district couldn’t pay its bills. In August 2023, Hammond’s school district learned it was on the DUAB’s watch list. When the referendum failed, the DUAB ordered the district to submit within 90 days a corrective action plan to improve its finances.

The due date for submittal of the plan was February 15.

A minimum of 2 and possibly four elementary schools are said to be on the cutting block -- Lew Wallace, Morton, Kenwood, and Franklin. The board developed the plan in executive sessions that are not open to the public.

Tuesday night, the board approved Resolution 2024-16. It authorized the superintendent to begin implementing a reduction in teachers and staff, and report to the board, by April 2, a preliminary list of employees to be cut.

Hammond is a tale of two cities. Its civil city, headed by Mayor Tom McDermott, is thriving.

Its expenses are paid by revenues from strong residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. At the last city council meeting, Mayor McDermott said casino revenues were down 28% from their high point. “The glory days of casinos are over and we’re preparing for it,” the mayor said.

A presentation Tuesday night by Eric Kurtz, the School City of Hammond’s Assistant Superintendent of Business Services revised the annual deficit upwards, to $27.5 million. “Even if the referendum had passed, it would not have prevented the cuts,” Kurtz said.

The Gary school’s annual deficit was $22 million when the state took control; but the state no longer has an appetite for managing school districts. What could happen, a district insider said, is the state could bring in its own people to manage the district’s finances.

Driving the deficit, Kurtz said, is the loss of school aged children. Indiana gives the school district almost $8,000 for each student enrolled. The district lost nearly 300 students for the 2023-24 school year. Added to that, Kurtz said, is the loss of Covid-pandemic relief funds and higher than expected employee medical costs.

Critics of Hammond’s board and superintendent, who include school board member Carlotta Blake-King, claim mismanagement.

Away from the confines of the board, Blake-King is adamant the superintendent should resign. “They knew in 2019 that the student population was dropping. They knew the Covid money was going to end and they did nothing,” Blake-King said.

The 5-member board votes in 2 blocs. On one side is president Lisa Miller, vice president Cindy Murphy, and secretary Manny Candelaria; the other side is Blake-King and Kelly Spencer.

Louis Gikas, president of the Hammond teachers’ union also says the funds were spent unwisely. “How can we have confidence in the 3 people who created this big problem be the ones to give a plan to the DUAB to correct it? It’s the students who will pay for this in larger class sizes and overcrowded schools.”

“When the Covid relief money came down, I asked for a 2-year contract to stabilize the district, to keep teachers in the district. They refused,” Gikas said.

Rina Horgan, a teacher and the union’s public relations person also cited mismanagement. “Instead of giving teachers stipends, we asked the administration to put that money into the self-insurance fund. They had borrowed $5 million from the fund; we wanted them to replace it. They wouldn’t do it.”

The district has devoted a section on its website, Frequently Asked Questions, to explain its current financial situation. “There is an abundance of information being shared from various sources, but much is without context or background, and most of it is incorrect,” the section says. Find it at https://www.hammond.k12.in.us/schfaq

Story Posted:03/23/2024

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