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general assembly

Proposed bill cuts wait to buy vacant schools

– Legislators on Wednesday considered lessening the effect of a law that has stymied the sale of several area school buildings.

Senate Bill 135 would cut in half the amount of time schools have to hold onto vacant buildings in case charter schools want to buy or lease them for $1.

It was heard in the Senate Education Committee and should receive an initial vote next week.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said legislators who worked on the bill in 2011 never intended a four-year delay. So he authored a bill dropping the time period to two years and also setting up a waiver process in case a school district has a potential buyer and no charter is interested.

The law in question resulted in two lawsuits in Allen County in which a judge recently ruled in favor of the public school districts’ ability to sell the buildings. It is still possible those cases will be appealed.

In the case involving Fort Wayne Community Schools, the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association sued to stop the sale of the Pleasant Center Elementary School building to the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority. It was an agreement reached before the changes to the charter school law went into effect but was about to be made official by an airport board vote the day the association filed its lawsuit.

In the other case involving East Allen County Schools, the district sued the charter school association to get a judge to weigh in on whether the district should be allowed to sell the shuttered Monroeville Elementary School to the Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese, which wanted to use it for educational purposes.

No charter schools have expressed interest in the rural building.

East Allen Superintendent Karyle Green spoke at Wednesday’s hearing, noting the annual costs for maintaining a vacant building can run from $50,000 to $90,000. This includes insurance, security and basic maintenance.

In most cases, the purchase offer for the building wouldn’t cover two to four years of those costs.

“This is about real-world economics,” she said.

Under the new bill, the timeline drops to 24 months. And if a public school district gets an offer, it must send notice to the Indiana Department of Education of its intent to sell.

That starts a 30-day period in which a charter school sponsor or state charter association can submit a qualified objection.

Such an objection must include the name of the charter school that is interested in leasing or buying the vacant or unused school building and a tentative time frame in which the charter intends to provide classroom instruction.

Kruse said that time frame might be tightened to a maximum of one year.

If there is no objection, the school can sell the building.

Green supported the bill but did criticize a definition change on what is considered a charter school. Under the bill, it would now include any group or entity seeking approval from a sponsor to operate a charter school.

Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, supported the changes, saying “no law is perfect” and the waiver process provides some flexibility.

He noted that only one vacant public school has been claimed off the state list for a charter school location so far.