The School City of Hammond and Lake Ridge Schools are issuing a new challenge to state law allowing the sale of public school buildings to charter schools for $1.
The two Lake County school districts filed a joint lawsuit in Lake Superior Court this month claiming the state law constitutes an unjust seizure of land that will deprive the districts of economic use of their property.
"The school system should have the same rights as any other property owner in Indiana," Hammond Superintendent Scott Miller said. "If we want to sell a property, we should have the same rights to sell the property."
The Lake County lawsuit comes just as a similar case filed in Tippecanoe County by the West Lafayette Community School Corp. was dismissed last week. Hammond and Lake Ridge Schools filed a legal motion to intervene in that case prior to its dismissal.
Now, the West Lafayette Community School Corp. is filing to intervene in the Lake County case, where representatives from all three school corporations say they hope the case will have a better chance.
"We sensed the court was not going to agree on the issue," said West Lafayette attorney Robert Reiling, adding he felt the case may receive a more positive reception in Lake County following a recent string of school closures this summer.
Under the state law, public school corporations must notify the Indiana Department of Education of any vacant school buildings in their district within 10 days of deciding to close, no longer use or no longer occupy a school.
The IDOE must then reach out to all charter school authorizers and organizations in the state, allowing them 30 days to express interest in a $1 sale or lease of the listed school building.
The West Lafayette Community School Corp. initially filed its Tippecanoe County case in September, unsure of what would happen next when a lease agreement with the city of West Lafayette, allowing the city to use the district's closed Happy Hollow Elementary as a temporary city hall, ends in 2021. The district has valued its Happy Hollow Elementary at $6 million.
"It impedes future planning because you don't know what particular time a charter school might come knocking on your door to get your buildings for $1," said West Lafayette Superintendent Rocky Killion.
The School City of Hammond currently owns three closed schools: Columbia Elementary, Lafayette Elementary and Miller school. All were closed last summer, but none have been reported to the state yet, Miller said, because all are now used as district storage facilities.
Lake Ridge Schools' Hosford Park New Tech Elementary also closed this summer, but also has not been listed with the state because adult education classes are now being taught out of the building, Lake Ridge School Board President Glenn Johnson said.
Miller said his district has received interest in its closed schools from non-educational entities, but has not moved forward in discussions to sell the properties with the knowledge the school city may have to first report the buildings for charter school interest.
"We would be interested in seeing what the options are," Miller said. "Right now, we're limited because of the law."
The Lake County lawsuit names Gov. Eric Holcomb, the IDOE and the Indiana State Board of Education, and seeks a judgment declaring the law unconstitutional and prohibiting the state from enforcing it.
"The office will vigorously defend the State's interests," reads a statement from the Office of the Indiana Attorney General, which will represent the governor, IDOE and State Board of Education.
Proponents of the law say it provides opportunity to public charter schools, which cannot solicit referendum funding to build schools in the same way public districts can, to continue offering public education opportunities in a community once a traditional public school closes.
The law has only been used twice in the sale of two Indianapolis Public Schools, IDOE spokesman Adam Baker said.
Supporters of the lawsuit say it is in the best interest of taxpayers, who ultimately funded the construction of the closed schools, to see their public school districts benefit from the sale of school buildings at market value. The West Lafayette Community School Corp. secured signatures from 1,066 taxpayers in support of its Tippecanoe County case, according to court filings.
"The taxpayers paid significantly more than $1 when it was built," Johnson said about Lake Ridge's Hosford Park Elementary. "If we were to say sell it privately, we'd definitely get significantly more than $1. To make it available to a charter school for essentially free, it's not fair."
The School City of Hammond has interest in seeing the case resolved by the 2021-22 school year when an additional two schools in its district are slated to close.
Miller said he still intends to pursue partnerships presented in November with the city of Hammond and Purdue University Northwest to repurpose the soon-to-close Clark and Gavit high school, which could be done through leasing the land. Though, current law could limit the sale of the two buildings if charters express interest.
"We feel the change in venue could present a more favorable outcome," Miller said. "It would be great to get some fair resolution."
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