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District residents hold up signs that say Save Monroeville during an EACS school board meeting in 2010.

EACS sues to clear up confusion on sale law

Charters get 1st buy chance

Attorneys for East Allen County Schools have filed a lawsuit in Allen Superior Court against the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association.

The school corporation wants a judge to clarify state law regarding selling vacant school buildings, and when they have to wait for charter schools to decide they are interested.

The lawsuit, a complaint for declaratory judgment, stems from the closure of Monroeville Elementary School at the end of the 2010-2011 school year.

The closure of the school was part of the district’s redesign, which also closed Harlan Elementary School and changed Paul Harding High School to East Allen University beginning this fall.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne–South Bend tried to purchase the Monroeville school this past spring in the hopes of turning it into a Catholic School. The diocese paid $2,500 in earnest money and offered to buy the building for $189,000, according to court documents.

But 2011 changes to Indiana law require vacant public school buildings to remain on a list kept by the Indiana Department of Education for 48 months to allow charter schools an opportunity to buy or lease the building, either option for $1.

If the school remains on the list, unclaimed for 48 months, then the district may sell or get rid of the property in other ways.

The law, offered by GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma, was purported to address situations in which districts were refusing to sell 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.

After the diocese expressed interest in the EACS property, the attorney for the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, which represents Indiana’s 65 public charter schools, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the district and the diocese, threatening a lawsuit if the school corporation proceeded with the sale.

The association filed a lawsuit against Fort Wayne Community Schools earlier this year, contesting the transfer of the shuttered Pleasant Center Elementary School to the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority. In that case, the Timothy L. Johnson Academy, a charter school, expressed interest in the property.

For the Monroeville school, however, no charter school has expressed any interest in the property, according to court documents.

School officials believe the charter school association is misinterpreting the 2011 law and ignoring the part of the law that says districts can sell property no longer needed for school purposes as long as the sale is in accordance with Indiana law, according to court documents. Doing as the charter school association wants would force a school corporation to bear the costs associated with maintaining an unneeded building for an unreasonable amount of time, according to the lawsuit.

In June, another church came forward with interest in a shuttered EACS building, this time Harlan Elementary School by Sunrise Chapel.

Russ Simnick, president of the charter schools association, said that if there is a conflict or confusion in the law, then there should be some clarification.

“We believe the legislature understood the issue,” he said. “That’s why they wrote the law this way. It’s very specific.”

The lawsuit against Fort Wayne Community Schools is still pending in Allen Superior Court.

rgreen@jg.net

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