Rep. Vernon Smith discusses the disenfranchisement of HB 1315

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INDIANAPOLIS – Democratic State Representative Dr. Vernon Smith of Gary issued the following op/ed discussing the passage of House Bill 1315. Smith says the measure, passed during the 2018 special session of the Indiana General Assembly, will shrink the authority of the elected Gary School Board, making it instead an advisory board that reports to the emergency manager chosen by the state to oversee the district.

“Merriam-Webster defines disenfranchisement as an act to “deprive of a franchise, of a legal right, or of some privilege or immunity, especially to deprive of the right to vote.” According to the dictionary, the word, disenfranchise, dates from 1664 when it was verifiably used to describe depriving someone of any number of legal rights.

“More than 350 years later, the word, disenfranchise, is still in use and still in practice. Most recently, we saw its ugly head raised when the Indiana General Assembly passed House Bill 1315 (ss) (HB 1315) during the special session May 14.

“The victims of Indiana’s 21st century version of disenfranchisement are the citizens of Gary and Muncie as the Legislature denied voters the right of self-determination by taking away even more of the Gary School Board’s powers and the right for the board to publicly meet more than once every three months. In addition, the General Assembly dismantled the duly elected Muncie School Board and gave Ball State University the authority to appoint a new, non-elected school board.

“By singling out the communities of Gary and Muncie, there appears to be an effort toward urban discrimination. One does not see similar takeovers in other communities that are not urban. Legislators from those unaffected communities, including wealthy ones, made the radical decision to eliminate the right of local control and self-determination through voting by the citizens of Gary and Muncie.

“During the debate on HB 1315, we heard excuses why the Gary and Muncie school districts should be taken over. The information offered by the bill’s proponents about the schools, including financial information, was dated and wrong. The Republican majorities also refused to consider the successes the financial managers in both the Gary and Muncie school districts are having in reducing indebtedness.

“In the General Assembly, we constantly hear that there should be equal funding for each student. However, there is a difference between equal funding and equitable funding. Gary School Corporation receives more state money per student than the wealthier school districts, yet the funding is not equitable. A school in Carmel or Fishers has many more resources than a school in Gary or Muncie.

“Additional funding is essential to a struggling urban school that has many more challenges than a wealthy suburban school. The GOP majorities in the House and Senate seem to want to punish urban schools for their lack of resources, including a thin stream of property tax flow compared to communities with large, multi-million dollar and even billion dollar firms.

“There is also the issue of the causation of financial difficulties due to the actions of the General Assembly. Consider the financial loses to the Gary Community School Corporation due to legislation action and inaction.

“The implementation of charter schools has cost Gary schools $327 million. The circuit breaker property tax caps eliminated $109.7 million. The state cuts to education funding took away another $4.7 million. The delays in state payments cost the district thousands of dollars in interest. And Gary public schools lost another $20 million with the passage of the state voucher program.

“At a minimum, those legislative actions cost the Gary Community School Corporation $461 million. Yet, the legislators who voted for HB 1315 will not acknowledge nor take responsibility for their role in creating a financial crisis for Gary schools.

“Instead, the Republican majorities chose to punish and discriminate against these two urban school districts by taking away those cities’ citizens’ right of self-determination through voting. HB 1315 is no less than an assault on representative democracy that so many have fought and died to preserve.

“I urge citizens of both Gary and Muncie to join together in a lawsuit to challenge this denial of the right to self-determination through voting, a right that is afforded to residents in all other school districts throughout the state.

“Disenfranchise is an ugly word that greatly diminishes the rights of honest, hard-working people. The word has haunted the world since the early 17th century. Yet, with time, the word remains just as ugly and just as dangerous to those whom disenfranchisement is imposed.”

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