The Charter School of the Dunes in Gary is constructing a $13 million building in Gary's Miller neighborhood.

The building will be at U.S. 20 and Old Hobart Road. Groundbreaking will be Wednesday.

Danielle Sleight, Charter School of the Dunes board president, said the building, which will take about 10 months to construct, will be ready for the 2013-14 school year.

The school, now at 860 N. Lake St., is owned by the city of Gary. That building likely will be leveled as part of the Marquette Plan, Sleight said.

Charter School of the Dunes has grown each year and now is at capacity. As it enters its 10th year, there will be about 450 students in kindergarten through 10th grade.

When the new school is ready, Sleight said the charter school will have students in grades kindergarten through 12. She said the new structure will have three buildings connected by walkways but "will still have a small-school feel to it."

Sleight said the board initially looked at buying the shuttered Nobel Elementary School in the Gary Community School Corp. but "it's pretty difficult to get a Gary school building."

She said board members decided it would be better to buy land despite the challenge of finding enough for the school. Sleight said the board bought the property in 2007 for $450,000. The 64,000-square-foot building will sit on seven acres, with capacity for 700 students.


Funding new charter school buildings

Unlike public schools, charter schools have few methods other than tuition to secure funds to build or remodel facilities, said Alex Damron, Indiana Department of Education spokesman. Legislators created a law that allows a charter school to rent or buy a closed public school building for $1 per year.

Charter schools are not taxing entities like public schools; they cannot impose property taxes.

Damron said the state Facilities Incentive Grant aims to help charter schools receive funds for buildings. Charter schools must submit an application and a budget to the state DOE. The application includes a list guidelines for receiving and using those funds.

In addition, state lawmakers created the Indiana Charter School Facilities Fund, which provides about $3.5 million in funds to charter schools for facilities. The department created a loan program that leverages outside funds and provides more finances for charter schools. Indiana works with a group called IFF, which manages the fund.

Sleight said IFF is its partner in the funding deal for the new building. She said the school borrowed about $8 million from the Qualified School Construction Bond and $5.5 million through a federal program called New Markets Tax Credits.

Public schools must use debt service for new buildings. A school corporation will issue a bond over 20 years and the money is paid back through the school corporation's debt-service fund, which is supported through property taxes.

Public schools also have a capital projects fund, supported through property taxes, to maintain school buildings. Because most school systems don't have enough money in their capital projects fund to construct a new school, a school district usually has a referendum, going directly to residents and asking them to vote to increase taxes to support the construction.

Sleight said this is the school's first time incurring major debt, and it took years to put the deal together.

"We closed on the school construction bonds through the Qualified School Construction Bond in December," she said. "On the New Market Tax Credits, we closed that deal on Tuesday. We have all of the money in hand for the project. We feel real good about this project. We have been saving our pennies. We invested more than $1 million in it. We did the environmental studies, the pre-work, titles and everything."


When charter schools close

"God forbid something happens and Charter School of the Dunes is closed. I'm confident there will be other schools who would love to be in our new facility," Sleight said.

IDOE's Damron said, "If a school closes, money provided by the state is the first sum that is collected."

Earlier this year, Campagna Academy Charter School, opened in 2002, closed, although it will continue to offer residential placement and in-home and community services to young people in need. A recent Indiana State Board of Accounts audit found the charter school owed the state $202,789 plus interest, as well as $200,000 to its managing company, Campagna Academy Inc.

Campagna CEO Elena Dwyre said in May that closing a charter school was a new situation for the state and Campagna, and both were learning how to do it.

Stephanie Sample, an IDOE spokeswoman, said the department expected to be repaid through the Charter School Facilities Fund. "If any charter school closes and they don't have the money to pay the loan back, the law allows for us to recoup ... through the Charter School Facilities Fund," she said. "That's money that would have gone to charter schools, anyway, for other things."

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Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.