MERRILLVILLE – Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for the Gary Community School Corp., something said you were wrong. And the embarrassment grows throughout Indiana.

Such was the case last week when former schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt – who retired in February – was charged in Lake Criminal Court with theft for allegedly double-billing the school district more than $1,200 for a three-day trip she took to Los Angeles in 2016.

She admitted the double billing but said it all was a mistake. The billing came at a time when the school system was more than $100 million in debt and under control of the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board and a state-appointed emergency manager.

This is the same Pruitt who was told by the state to repay a $30,000 bonus she said had been approved by the school board in March 2016,  which was just before the junket to California.

The State Board of Cccounts acknowledged that Pruitt’s 2012 contract had a growth incentive plan and bonus, but said there was no plan and no dollar amount for the bonus.

It is difficult to comprehend why the school board would approve massive bonuses while the district was mired in debt. But Pruitt isn’t the only one in the school district to come under a financial cloud.

Particularly after employment at U.S. Steel was sharply reduced, the school district operated as an employment agency even though revenue and enrollment were declining. When the city population plummeted from 185,000 to less than 80,000, it only made sense that the school corporation should have reduced staff and closed school buildings. Instead, the board allowed some schools to fall into ruin, including Gary Roosevelt High School that once was one of the premier all-black high schools in the nation.

There also was a time when school board members paid themselves handsomely for attending committee meetings. And boy did they call a lot of committee meetings.

Perhaps the greatest violation was the junket taking by a female school board member years back. She went to California for an education conference and then proceeded on to Japan where her boyfriend was stationed in the Navy. Yep, she billed the schools for the entire trip. She got caught, but wasn’t prosecuted when she agreed to repay the schools for the Japan portion of the trip. 
 
Rich James has been writing about politics and government for 40 years. He is retired from the Post-Tribune, a newspaper born in Gary.