EAST CHICAGO — Lead problems in the West Calumet Housing Complex are creating havoc for the School City of East Chicago, affecting the finances and enrollment of a district that just balanced its budget and eliminated a deficit after years of struggling.
As many as 1,200 residents have been told to move because of the health risks posed by the soil around their homes that is contaminated with lead and arsenic. Residents will receive vouchers to move, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will do a massive cleanup.
East Chicago schools Superintendent Paige McNulty said several issues could hamper district finances, including a decrease in enrollment, which will affect the budget, and what to do with a closed elementary school building sitting on contaminated land.
McNulty, who became superintendent in July after being assistant superintendent for a year, decided to close Carrie Gosch Elementary School, built in the West Calumet neighborhood, and move the students to the former West Side Middle School building at 4001 Indianapolis Blvd. The district had closed West Side and sent those students to Block Middle School, leaving it empty.
McNulty wants the state to hold the district harmless regarding enrollment, which will require legislative action. That means she would like the district to receive state funding as though Carrie Gosch were operating at full enrollment.
McNulty said the district expected about 4,400 students to enroll in all its schools this fall. She said current enrollment is a few hundred less than that, and she doesn’t know where the missing students have enrolled, if anywhere.
“The ADM (average daily membership) count is in September and if the students are gone, the state will immediately reduce our tuition support,” she said.
McNulty said there are almost 600 students in the West Calumet community. Carrie Gosch had an enrollment of 430 last school year, with another 158 students from that neighborhood who attended Block Middle and East Chicago Central High schools.
School started Aug. 15, and only 280 Carrie Gosch students have enrolled at West Side. With East Chicago schools receiving $7,200 per pupil from the state, the district stands to lose about $2 million. McNulty said if all the West Calumet families move out of the district it loses nearly 600 students. That will be a loss of a little more than $4 million.
“We just balanced the budget,” McNulty said. “We heard about this at the 11th hour.
“I had five days before school started to move (students). I had to pay for 10 moving companies, staff to work around the clock, convert the middle school building into a pre-K-6 building, change the toilets and restrooms to accommodate younger children, convert the water fountains for younger children, re-create the kitchen, which had been dismantled and clean the building, which we hadn’t done yet.”
McNulty said the entire situation is heartbreaking.
“I had just put in new tile, new carpeting and new front doors at Carrie Gosch. We finished about two weeks ago,” she said.
McNulty appealed to the Indiana State Board of Education for money.
On Aug. 10, SBOE unanimously adopted a resolution to give the school corporation a disaster loan of up to $3 million to be used for the move.
The resolution was proposed by SBOE member Eddie Melton, of Merrillville, who said Friday SBOE is working with the state auditor and budget agency in expediting the transfer of funds.
“During the 2017 legislative session,” he said, “legislators should be able to work with the Indiana Department of Education to address any funding shortfalls the School City of East Chicago may experience due to this unanticipated environmental disaster.”
State, federal involvement
IDOE spokesman Daniel Altman said state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the department have been working closely with the East Chicago community on this matter. He said the department is providing support and resources to the community, including having an outreach coordinator work with the school daily to ensure that all available state resources are being utilized.
The department also has contacted the federal government to determine the possibility of federal funding.
“With respect to loan forgiveness or some type of hold harmless regarding ADM, both of those would require legislative action, and I imagine that will be discussed during the upcoming legislative session,” Altman said.
McNulty was scheduled to meet with state Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Monday, and will meet with other local and state legislators. She said she hopes East Chicago state Sen. Lonnie Randolph will carry legislation next year.
Kenley said Friday he is aware of the lead problems in East Chicago.
“She’s coming to see me so she can explain the situation and I can better understand it and what needs to be done,” he said.
“I need to look at that and talk to her and figure out what role the state can play in resolving the situation. We have a stake in this. I appreciate that she is making the trip to get me up to speed early on and try and figure out what we can do and should do.”
McNulty said the district still owes $1.4 million on a mortgage on the Carrie Gosch building. She said she doesn’t know how much the district spent on its construction. She said she still has to pay for its utilities, maintenance and security.
“It’s sitting on a wasteland,” she said.
“There is talk of demolishing the property over there. Carrie Gosch should be included in any funding the city gets to demolish property over there. Even though we are a public school, we should be wrapped in that solution.”
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland said the building was constructed before his time in office. He said it will be up to the School Board to make a decision on the building’s future.
Helping families with school-age children
McNulty said school officials have gone out in the West Calumet neighborhood, provided fliers and encouraged parents to enroll their children in school.
“Some were under the impression that they needed to wait until they moved to enroll their children in school,” she said.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there. We’ve also done robo calls. We have the information on our website. We have parent liaisons who have called every single parent on the list who lives in that community, but we are still missing about 150 kids who should be enrolled at Carrie Gosch.”
McNulty said in a few weeks, administrators will be able to check if students have enrolled in other local schools by seeing if student ID numbers show up in other districts, but they will have no way to know if a family moves to Illinois and enrolls a student there.
McNulty said she has dozens of parents who want to have expedited testing for special education because of the lead problems.
“We didn’t budget for that,” she said.
McNulty said parents also are moving in with family members; by doing so, they fall under the McKinney-Vento Act because they are considered homeless.
That federal law provides certain rights for homeless students, including waiving certain requirements such as proof of residency when students are enrolling and allowing students to have free textbooks. The law also allows homeless students to attend their school of origin or the school where they are temporarily residing.
McNulty has reached out to local superintendents for advice, and contacted Flint Community Schools Superintendent Bilal Tawwab, whose district has dealt with lead problems after reports that Flint’s drinking water contained high lead levels.
“He is the only other superintendent that I’m aware of who has dealt with a similar situation,” she said.
McNulty has opened the West Side school building to the North Township trustee’s office to assist parents, along with the East Chicago Health Department, which will provide free lead testing to the community.
She said she plans to sign a lease agreement with EPA, which wants to rent the first floor of Carrie Gosch to use while the agency cleans the West Calumet area.
“The ADM (Average Daily Membership) count is in September and if the students are gone, the state will immediately reduce our tuition support.” Superintendent Paige McNulty, School City of East Chicago