Muncie Schools one step closer to state takeover

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- A proposal to require the state takeover of Muncie Community Schools advanced at the Indiana Statehouse Monday.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 19 to 3 in favor of an amended bill that would declare the school corporation as a distressed political subdivision.  The Muncie amendment was added to Senate Bill 567, which outlines the state takeover of Gary’s school corporation.

Muncie Schools officials say they just learned of the amendment on Friday, and they are not in favor of a state takeover.

“I do believe there is the ability to right the ship without state takeover,” said MCS Superintendent Dr. Steve Baule.  “The (school) board has done a good job of putting a plan in place, as part of their strategic plan, as part of their facilities plan they’re working on.”

The bill amendment comes as Muncie Schools faces an $18 million deficit.  The last few weeks have seen stalled negotiations with their teachers’ union and the resignation of the district’s chief financial officer.  On Friday, a state fact-finder called the district’s plan to reduce teacher salaries and raise insurance costs “potentially catastrophic.”

If the amended bill passes, a state-appointed emergency manager would hire a financial manager and an academic manager.  The management team would have broad control over financial and academic decisions for the district, with the intent of getting the corporation back on firm financial footing.

House Ways and Means Chair, Rep. Tim Brown, said he would assume the decisions made by the emergency manager would include input from the local Muncie community.

“I think what you see in the language of the bill is we don’t become proscriptive of what the manager does,” Brown said.  “I certainly think and we hope would have community members involved.”

Dr. Baule testified before the Ways and Means Committee that the MCS board is already seeking ways to reduce the district’s deficit.

“There are already a lot of tough decisions they’ve already made,” Dr. Baule said.  “They made about 9 million dollars in reductions so far.  But there’s still more work to be done, and of course it doesn’t happen overnight.”

“The board has made tough decisions, and to be lumped in with this bill doesn’t really recognize that,” Baule said.

MCS Board President, Debbie Feick recognized the district’s financial situation is “dire.”  She testified before the committee that the school district may not make payroll in July.

“We knew that affiliation with a du-op board, or distressed units appeals board, was obviously a possible consequence,” Feick said.  “But we were doing everything we could to keep that from happening.”

Feick and others disagree with the state taking over the district without Muncie Community Schools requesting it.

“And I think their objective was probably to step in and help out, I have to believe that,” Feick said.  “And for that I applaud them, but I just want consistency in terms of how do we go about determining eligibility.”

Some members of the Ways and Means Committee reluctantly voted to pass the amended bill because they supported the language to include Gary schools, but did not support the Muncie Schools takeover.

Representative Brown said he expects several lawmakers to propose their own amendments to the bill in the next 48 hours.  He said the bill could come up on second reading on the House Floor Wednesday or Thursday.

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