By Associated Press - Saturday, July 25, 2015

GARY, Ind. (AP) - Gary’s neighborhoods are pockmarked with 21 abandoned schools littered with broken windows and gang graffiti that add to the northwestern Indiana city’s urban decay.

Gary Community Schools officials say they’re unable to sell the buildings because of a $7.1 million lien from the IRS over delinquent taxes and penalties.

The district has several million dollars more in debts and has been laying off teachers and closing schools for several years as the city’s population has plunged more than 20 percent since 2000.

The former Brunswick Elementary on the city’s west side is partially boarded up and surrounded by knee-high grass. Melba Johnson, who lives across the street from the school, said the building’s condition makes the neighborhood look unsafe.

“Look at the way they cut that grass. It’s just half done. Look behind the fence. That’s where the playground used to be. You don’t know what’s back there now,” she told The (Munster) Times ( ).

The problem with Gary’s vacant schools drew attention earlier this month when a 17-year-old Chicago girl was found strangled to death inside one former school building.

The school district began selling buildings in 2010 as its finances were being squeezed by declining enrollment, reduced property tax collections and decreases in state funding.

The former Tolleston Middle School was sold to The Boys & Girls Club of Northwest Indiana for $100. Banneker Elementary School was sold to the National Civil Rights Museum for $50,000. Beckman Middle School was sold to Lew Management for $100,000.

Gary attorney Kenya Jones, who works on the school district’s real estate matters, said the district isn’t able now to provide a clear title on the closed buildings because of the tax lien.

“Over the years, we’ve also had interest in the buildings but one of the things that people have to consider is the utilities, maintenance and overall upkeep of a building that size,” Jones said. “We would love to sell the buildings. I get calls all the time, but until the IRS lien is cleared, we can’t do anything.”

The population loss and blight that led to the school closures also makes it difficult to attract potential buyers or developers for the properties, said Marisa Novara, director of housing and community development for the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council think tank.

“The very nature of what makes the schools close down to begin with also makes it that much harder to redevelop the school properties,” Novara said. “Demand is often very low for these properties.”

The former Lew Wallace High School has only been closed for a year, but weeds have already overtaken its sidewalks, some windows are broken and a brick wall on the building’s west end is crumbling.

Johnathan Williams graduated from Lew Wallace in 2001 and still lives in the neighborhood. He said the area has had gang and crime troubles for years, but having the school there helped.

“The school was good for the neighborhood, because it kept the neighborhood in check,” he said. “… When a school shuts down, part of a community shuts down.”


Information from: The Times,

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