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Charter building lawsuit to be heard

2 county districts would like to sell shuttered schools

– Since June 2010, Fort Wayne Community Schools has been spending $1,200 to $3,200 a month on utilities at Pleasant Center Elementary School.

And no one is using it.

FWCS shuttered the building, along with Elmhurst High School, as a cost-cutting measure after state funding cuts caused a budget shortfall in 2010.

The Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority wanted to acquire Pleasant Center, and school officials were set to transfer the property to the airport. As the proposal was being reviewed, the General Assembly passed a law that requires public school corporations to make vacant buildings available to charter schools for lease or purchase for $1.

After the district and the airport agreed to move forward with the plan, but before the property could be turned over, the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association sued on behalf of the Timothy L. Johnson Academy, seeking to stop the property transfer.

That case, and a similar one also filed in Allen Superior Court by East Allen County Schools, are set for a joint hearing this week in which a judge will weigh arguments on what the state law says or what it really means.

At stake is whether school corporations can dispose of their old school buildings when they feel they need to do so, or whether they must wait four years, even if no charter school expresses interest.

Unused buildings

At issue is how Indiana law is to be interpreted.

Passed as part of a sweeping charter schools bill in 2011, the legislation says “charter schools shall have access to unused school facilities owned by school corporations.”

The law, offered by GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma, purported to address situations in which districts were refusing to sell vacant buildings to charter schools to avoid competition. However, only anecdotal evidence from urban areas such as Indianapolis and Gary was offered during the hearings on the bill.

According to the law, unused buildings will be put on a list at the Indiana Department of Education’s website. The unused buildings stay on that list for four years. If no charter school wants them, then the districts can dispose of them however they want – selling, transferring or demolishing.

Currently, 32 unused school buildings are on the list, ranging from the administration building for Vincennes Community School Corp. to the old Elmhurst High School.

If a charter school expresses interest in a building on the list, then the district must lease it or sell it to the charter school for $1.

In August 2011, FWCS put Pleasant Center Elementary School on the Department of Education’s list of unused buildings and received no notification about any interest in the building until November.

In December, the district voted to transfer the property to the airport. But before the airport authority could vote to accept the property, the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association got wind of the deal and sued to stop it.

“We’re out of (the deal),” said Scott Hinderman, executive director of airports for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority. “We backed out of it until some of that stuff could be settled.

“Should the property owner have the ability to sell it, we would at least visit with them. There’s nothing that we can do right now. It’s our understanding that it is unavailable,” Hinderman said.

In their response to the lawsuit, attorneys for FWCS argued that the Indiana Public Charter Schools lawsuit focused solely on the charter school legislation. By doing so, the school district attorneys argued, the charter schools association ignored other state laws, specifically related to a school district’s power to decide what to do with property no longer needed for school purposes.

Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Charter Schools Association, said the law seems to be working just fine elsewhere in the state. He cited an unused Indianapolis school that was claimed by a charter school.

“That went flawlessly,” Simnick said. “We haven’t had districts do what FWCS did. … We actually had the Department of Education award (Pleasant Center) to the charter school. And the district did not follow through.”

FWCS board President Mark GiaQuinta said the local charter school was told about the pending sale by the Department of Education, which enabled charter school officials to move to block the transfer.

A spokeswoman with the Indiana Department of Education said it seems extraordinarily unlikely that the department would have known about FWCS’ plan to sell the building, adding that the state’s role is to just administer the list as required by state law.

Regardless, the lawsuit still makes GiaQuinta angry as he talks about it.

“This sale represented an example of community partnership, since the school district was providing the property for the purposes of economic development, and with the result of getting the property back on the tax rolls,” he said. “It represented a win for the school district, a win for the economic development alliance, and a win for the taxpayers.”

Money spent on utilities for the shuttered building is money taken directly from the district’s general fund, which could be going to the classroom, GiaQuinta said.

Monroeville debate

East Allen County Schools redesigned its district a couple years ago, closing Harlan Elementary School and Monroeville Elementary School, and turned Paul Harding High School into East Allen University.

After the Fort Wayne-South Bend Roman Catholic Diocese tried to buy Monroeville Elementary, Simnick’s organization sent a cease-and-desist letter to East Allen County Schools and the diocese, threatening a lawsuit if the district went through with the sale.

Unlike Fort Wayne Community Schools, however, no existing charter school has expressed interest in Monroeville Elementary School.

Simnick said that doesn’t matter. The law is the law, and it says buildings must stay on the list for a full four years or until a charter school comes forward and asks for the building.

“Just because (a school) is not (inquiring about a building) today doesn’t mean there won’t be tomorrow,” he said.

The district beat the charter schools association to the punch and in August filed a lawsuit of its own, asking an Allen Superior Court judge to determine what the law means.

Another vacant East Allen County elementary school – this one in Harlan – also sits unused. Sunrise Chapel expressed interest in the building and offered to buy it. But the church’s offer was so low, state law required the district hold off for another offer.

After East Allen ran into trouble trying to sell Monroeville Elementary, the district put the sale of Harlan Elementary on hold.

In the EACS lawsuit against the charter school association, each side has documents outlining its reading of the law – with the charter schools association arguing the district should address the issue through legislation rather than having the court “impose an interpretation which would render meaningless more specific, later adopted statutory language.”

The district argued that the charter schools association’s argument is a “tortured analysis and (is) doing violence to the intent of the legislature,” according to court documents.

Diocesan officials said they are still interested in the building, should the deal be allowed to proceed.

Even though he believes the law was clearly written, Simnick recognizes problems with the law as it was adopted in 2010 and supports efforts to shorten the amount of time the buildings remain on the Department of Education’s list.

He said he has already spoken with legislators about changing the statute.

“Certainly there’s a will to make the buildings available for educational purposes,” he said, adding there is an understanding that the law does not make that possible right now.

And decaying buildings fit only for the wrecking ball should not be tied up on a list when no one is going to want them. But if the building is viable, it should be available, Simnick said.

“Public charter schools should have access to public buildings paid for by taxpayer funds,” he said.

GiaQuinta said if the charter schools association wants to help, it should dismiss the lawsuit against FWCS.

“They should relinquish the property to the community, which would like to have it back on the tax rolls,” GiaQuinta said.