Attorneys for the School City of Hammond and Lake Ridge Schools are defending their challenge of a state law allowing the sale of unused school buildings to charter school operators for $1.
In new filings this week, the school districts’ legal team disputed a state motion to dismiss the lawsuit, maintaining the districts should be allowed to collect the full value of closed school buildings.
The latest filings come after the attorney general’s office asked Lake Superior Court in Hammond to drop the case, arguing the school districts did not have grounds to bring a case against the state and that the current law posed no immediate risk to the schools given it is unclear if charter schools would express interest in Hammond- and Lake Ridge-owned buildings.
The challenge, which originated in a Tippecanoe County case last September before moving to Lake County in a separate lawsuit brought in January, names Gov. Eric Holcomb, the Indiana State Board of Education and the Indiana Department of Education.
The West Lafayette Community School Corp. joined the School City of Hammond and Lake Ridge Schools in their case after the September Tippecanoe Circuit Court case was dropped.
Under current law, school corporations are required to notify the IDOE of vacant properties within 10 days of deciding to close, no longer use or no longer occupy a school.
Charter school authorizers and operators across the state then are informed of the vacancy and given 30 days to express interest in buying or leasing the building for $1.
The Hammond and Lake Ridge districts together have four closed schools in their districts, and Hammond intends to close two more by fall 2021.
None of those schools has been listed with the IDOE for charter notification, which has led the state to argue the districts have no grounds to sue the state given it is unknown whether their buildings are at risk of being sold for $1.
The Office of the Attorney General, representing the governor, the IDOE and the Indiana State Board of Education, did not respond to requests for comment.
Unlike Hammond and Lake Ridge, West Lafayette did list its closed Happy Hollow Elementary with the IDOE earlier this year upon a Tippecanoe Circuit Court judge’s urging, finding that no charter operators took interest.
Yet, the state law still poses harm, the schools’ attorneys argue, because of the lost property value and planning ability posed by the uncertain nature of if a charter organization may later express interest.
“The statutes under challenge create a cloud on the title to the property, other properties owned by (the Hammond, Lake Ridge and West Lafayette school districts), as well as properties owned by every other school corporation in the state of Indiana,” the districts' response filed Thursday reads.
The schools’ attorneys further argue the $1 charter law unconstitutionally allows a taking of property without just compensation depriving school districts of potentially millions of dollars that could be attained through property sales.
The districts’ attorneys, citing cases in Utah, South Carolina and Indiana, say that similar litigation shows that the districts constitutionally should be compensated for their property.
They add that because no state funds were used to construct the school buildings or are being used to fund the current lawsuit, the districts have the right to bring their case against the state.
The state and school districts now await response from a Lake Superior Court judge who could grant or deny the state’s motion to dismiss the case, or order a court hearing.
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