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IGA special session passes all bills, controversy surrounds Gary, Muncie school takeovers

The Indiana General Assembly met for its one-day special session Monday afternoon, during which five separate bills were pushed through at the insistence of Gov. Eric Holcomb who requested the special session in April .

However, numerous Democrat legislators questioned the priorities of the special session, the rushed manner of the proceedings and the lack of any mention of the crisis facing the Indiana Department of Child Services.

Here are the five bills that were discussed and passed as part of the special session. As both the Indiana House and Senate are majority Republican, there was little doubt as to all bills being passed.

HB 1457: Technical Corrections

HB 1457 was the first bill up for conversation in the Indiana Senate. The bill did not relate to any change in policy issues, but was created to correct discrepancies such as incorrect dates that may have appeared in the record.

The bill passed in the Indiana House 94-0 and the Senate 46-2.

HB 1230: School safety

House Bill 1230 discussed school safety and passed the House 96-1. Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, was the only one who voted against the bill. The bill later passed the Indiana Senate 47-1.

In her opening remarks, Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, said they did not need to be in session at all and HB 1230, and all the other bills, did not constitute an emergency. She also said the process was rushed and she took issue with that.

"I do not believe this is a legitimate way to conduct government business," she said.

Sen. Jeff Raatz, R- Centerville, said Tallian is wrong and this bill couldn't have waited for next year.

Raatz spoke for the bill by saying HB 1230 asks for a necessary review of school safety throughout each district and school, and provided additional money to help fund measures like safety training of school employees and school safety specialists. 

The bill includes provisions about cyber bullying, human trafficking and additional funds for school safety, including a $5 million grant for which schools can apply.

Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, and Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, both asked questions about the bill. Stoops was quick to say that while he was going to vote for the bill, but school threats are about gun availability, not school safety alone. 

Randolph's concerns were focused more on the possibility charter schools would be eligible for the same funds that public schools would have but without the same requirements.

HB 1242: State and local administration.

HB 1242 addresses changes to state and local administration as well as tax collection policies. No major discussion took place on this bill. It passed the House 74-20 and the Senate 41-7.

HB 1316: Taxes and higher education bonding.

The Senate moved to discuss one of the two tax bills, HB 1316. 

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, spoke for the bill and said it’s mostly the same as the one that  existed during regular session, except HB 1316 has added language allowing families to get tax credits to 529 saving plans, which could be used for K-12 expenses. 

Holdman said if the bill is not passed, local tax payers could experience an uptick in tax liabilities.

Tallian argued the bill would not help small businesses and needs a lot of work for it to be  effective.

 "It doesn't simplify small business accounting and actually gets rid of small business deductions," Tallian said.

Holdman acknowledged Tallian's concerns and said because of the dynamic nature of the current federal administration and changing tax rules, the bill will likely have to be reviewed later. 

The bill passed the Indiana House 75-22 and the Senate 40-8.

HB 1315: School corporation financial management

The final bill of the special session was also the most controversial. 

HB 1315 hands control over Muncie schools to Ball State University and removes the elected school boards in both Muncie, Indiana, and Gary, Indiana. These actions were considered necessary in order to deal with falling student enrollment in schools and debt among school corporations.

The school board in Gary will change from a governing body to an advisory one. Muncie will have its board appointed by BSU.

Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, spoke for the bill and said it doesn't go as far as some wanted it to, but he promised to keep an eye on the situation.

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, stood up to address some concerns he had with the bill, including specific ways the school corporations would be exempt from certain Indiana statutes and requirements.

For example, Taylor said the bill has nothing about requiring teachers to be trained in detecting neglect or abuse; there is also no mention of requiring suicide awareness and prevention. Taylor asked if the bill was in the best interest of students. Mishler said it was.

Mishler said while there are some concerns, the bill gives schools the flexibility they need by not requiring overly cumbersome regulations.

Taylor thanked Mishler for being straightforward, but said if the school corporation could cherry-pick what statutes they wanted to follow, that should be concerning to anyone.

"We should all be troubled by that," Taylor said. "I'm troubled by that."

Randolph also said he was concerned the bill would take power away from an elected board by making them merely an advisory board. Gary is a minority area and Randolph said someone might see this as an effort to dilute the vote of people in Gary. 

"Does your vote really count?" Randolph asked.

This bill also restricts when elected officials are allowed to speak in public meetings. Instead of monthly meetings, the board would only be allowed to meet once every quarter. 

Sen. Tim Lanae, D-Anderson, called the move taxation without representation and said the changes to the school boards of Muncie and Gary is nothing less than disenfranchisement. 

"We disenfranchised the community members of Muncie and Gary," Lanae said. "One has to wonder about the accountability of a non-elected school board."  

The most passionate speaker against HB 1315 was Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville.

Melton told legislators he wished his comments could be brief, but that they would not be and that he hoped they had water.

His comments touched on the statistics of his district in Gary, including falling student enrollment and school debt, but then went on to what he called "uncomfortable ground." 

The issue of race. 

"This conversation would not be complete if we did not talk about race," Melton said.

Race plays a part of his life every day as a black man in Indiana, Melton said. And these new policies seems to infringe on the rights of minorities, and it is imperative for legislators to look through a lens of "racial equity," he said.

While not an indictment on anyone in the chamber, he said, race needs to be a part of the conversation and the approach lawmakers take when addressing community issues. 

Melton said HB 1315 is not a grassroots movement or request. Rather, it is a top-down move and one that he cannot support. 

This bill, he said, looks like taxation without representation and like the dilution of the minority vote in school board elections.

Melton said Mishler has been helpful and open about the process around the bill, but that his vote had to be no and he hoped others would do the same.

Despite Melton's plea, HB 1315 on the Gary and Muncie takeover passed the House 63-30 and passed the Senate 34-14. 

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