Veteran Indianapolis educator heads to Gary to lead Indiana’s district takeover

When veteran educator Peggy Hinckley learned that she would be the emergency manager for the troubled school district in Gary, Indiana, she jumped into action.

From her seat in a musty conference room on the fourth floor of the Indiana Statehouse, she texted her team of staffers to tell them to get on the road.

“We have a meeting tonight at 7 p.m. to organize,” Hinckley told Chalkbeat. “We will be in the office at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning with about 10 people at least.”

Hinckley, who previously served as superintendent in three districts including Warren Township and as interim-superintendent in Indianapolis Public Schools, submitted an emergency management proposal in partnership with Florida-based MGT Consulting Group. They were chosen at meeting in the statehouse Monday to lead Gary Community School Corp. by the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board, which considered presentations from seven teams.

Hinckley was not the only candidate with ties to Indianapolis: A proposal from the Robert Bobb Group included Earl Phalen as a team member. Phalen runs a rapidly expanding charter network that includes several schools in Indianapolis and a school in Gary.

A native of Gary, Hinckley attended elementary school in the district she will manage. For the last several years, Hinckley has consulted with schools on turnaround, and it was clear the board was at least partly swayed by her experience as a superintendent.

Peggy Hinckley (Dylan Peers McCoy)

“There’s not one mark bad against Peggy Hinckley … in her career,” said board member Paul Joyce. “If any team had Peggy Hinckley on it, (that) would be like a gigantic plus. And it’s extraordinary MGT brought her on their team. And for me, that brought clarity to it.”

Democratic Sen. Eddie Melton of Merrillville, who has an advisory seat on the board, supported a different proposal from Comer Capital Group. But the MGT proposal was chosen unanimously by the board’s voting members.

Now that Hinckley has won the contract to manage Gary, she faces a daunting challenge: Improving both academic performance and financial stability in a shrinking district that has been labeled an F since 2011 and is plagued by crippling debt problems.

School starts in Gary on August 17, and Hinckley’s team must first answer basic questions, she said, such as whether staff have been hired and the district will have the cash to make payroll.

Hinckley said they must also improve academics in the next year, but that changing the district is a long-term project.

“I think it’s gonna be boots on the ground for a long time,” she said. “These things don’t get solved overnight.”