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Gary schools can’t pay for needed repairs

– A majority of Gary schools are in need of renovation, but school officials say they lack the resources to make all the repairs.

The Gary Community School Corp. needs at least $6.5 million for work on buildings that will open this fall. Five other school buildings are being closed.

Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt said money for the work will come from the school closings and teacher and staff retirements, as well as from an insurance settlement to repair one school that was damaged in a Jan. 6 winter storm that caused the boiler to malfunction and pipes to freeze.

But the scope of the work, which includes roof and boiler repairs, new paint and ceiling tiles, exceeds the district’s resources. The district already has used a crew from the Lake County work release program to help with lawn work.

Several of the district’s schools have been vandalized, forcing officials to replace glass windows with Plexiglas. Facilities director Charles Prewitt said that prevents vandals from breaking windows but doesn’t offer energy efficiency.

It’s a difficult situation, he said.

“It’s too late to sugarcoat it,” Prewitt said. “We can’t keep patching these buildings. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

“We’ve had to make some hard decisions, and we have had to make them quickly.”

The district’s financial situation is the result of statewide property tax caps, declining enrollment and a low tax-collection rate.

The city of Gary lost a total of $47 million because of property tax caps in 2014, according to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee that helps craft the state budget and school funding formula, said she has broached the idea of help from the legislature.

Rogers said Gary’s low property tax-collection rate may bolster arguments for help that would send more money to the school district.

“With a 42 percent property tax collection, I think the state has some responsibility in making sure we provide what students need to achieve in this city,” Rogers said.

Pruitt, the superintendent, said the district hopes to receive a federal grant for new security doors for schools.

“Our focus is safer, cleaner, better,” Pruitt said. “We are collectively working to resolve the issues.”