St. Joseph Elementary, a five classroom school in Monroeville, turns 100 this year. And members of the parish that manages the school had a grand plan to mark the occasion.
Last summer, the Rev. Lourdino Fernandes learned that a former elementary school in the same neighborhood was up for sale. The idea of purchasing the larger, more modern school was lofty, he thought, but just the kind of goal needed to reenergize the parish.
He pitched it. And soon St. Rose of Lima Church members, many of whom were farmers or low-wage earners, dug deep into their pockets and raised about $520,000 to purchase and maintain Monroeville Elementary, owned by East Allen County Schools.
“People who couldn’t pay any money before, suddenly they found money to pay,” Fernandes said. In mid-April, the East Allen board agreed to sell the closed school to the Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese for $189,000. But now the deal, which has not yet closed, may fall through.
The Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, the state’s leading pro-charter group, is asking both parties to back out of the deal, alleging the sale violates state law. The problem arises out of a law passed by the Indiana General Assembly in 2011 making unused school buildings available for possible charter tenants for $1.
GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma authored the legislation and said Tuesday the intent was to address situations in which districts were purposely refusing to sell buildings to charter schools to avoid competition. Only anecdotal evidence was offered in hearings on the legislation, and it focused on urban areas such as Indianapolis and Gary.
The law that eventually passed requires districts to put unused buildings on a list with the Indiana Department of Education so that anyone interested in creating a charter school can check for a possible location.
A district can reclaim the school on the list if it wants to use it for classroom instruction again. Other than that, though, the building has to sit unused for four years before it can be sold.
Legislators clearly didn’t envision a case such as in Monroeville, where no charter school has expressed interest in the rural Allen County town.
“Everyone is extremely upset, they are extremely disappointed,” said Lori Wagner, a member of the parish. “The school has been empty for a year and nobody has put forth any interest. We’re pretty upset they are trying to do this on a technicality and not on a practicality.”
East Allen County Schools closed Monroeville Elementary at the end of last school year as part of a district redesign plan meant to help bring the district’s finances in line. The move caused a public outcry in Monroeville, where many leaders believed the absence of a school in the center of the community would destroy the town.
In the aftermath of the closure, Monroeville Town Council President Don Gerardot said he reached out to local and national charter groups, hoping they would relocate to the school. But none expressed interest.
“Everybody’s disappointed,” he said. “That’s got to be the dumbest law I’ve ever heard of.”
The Indiana Public Charter Schools Association has sent both East Allen and the diocese a cease-and-desist letter, pointing out the Monroeville Elementary has not been on the unused school building list for the required 48 months. It was added at the end of the 2010-2011 school year.
Bosma said he isn’t aware of all the details in the East Allen County Schools case but focused again on the spirit of the law.
“It would seem under these circumstances that people should be able to get together and come to a reasonable conclusion that serves children,” he said.
But there is nothing in the law that allows for any exceptions. The building has to sit for four years before anyone can buy it.
To maintain Monroeville Elementary for a year, the district must spend about $28,000 on utility costs alone, according to officials. That figure doesn’t include the thousands more the district is spending on insurance and labor costs associated with people who regularly monitor the building.
Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, represents Monroeville and is interested in possibly adding some triggers to the law allowing a district to sell within four years, especially in a rural area where the likelihood of a charter school is much smaller.
“Four years is a long time to sit with a building when you have a buyer there with a check,” he said.
Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, said he supports adding some flexibility into the law, including reducing the waiting period down from four years to two. But he also wants to add enforcement teeth into the law for districts blatantly violating it.
“If they legitimately have a good use for it and no charter school is interested in a reasonable time frame maybe they should be able to do something with it,” he said.
But Simnick noted the law wasn’t written to aid private schools – even if they now receive state voucher funding. It was meant to help existing charter schools and those that might happen in the future, even in rural areas.
He also believes the association has standing to challenge EACS in court under the law, while an Indianapolis law firm professor isn’t so sure.
Standing is the legal term for who has the right to sue in a civil case.
Jeff Cooper, associate professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, said the state’s approach to standing is a bit more lax than on the federal level.
“Even so, standing requires that a plaintiff allege an actual injury that has already occurred or that is imminent; mere hypothetical possibility of injury is not sufficient,” he said. “The difficulty from the perspective of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association lies in their ability to allege actual injury, absent the identification of a specific charter school that would like to use the building in question.
“At the moment, the claim looks hypothetical.”
That same professor, though, agrees with the associations’ allegation that EACS is violating the law.
The district claims it is following the original law allowing districts to sell or exchange any property the board no longer feels is needed. Legislators added the new provisions about the charter list in 2011 but didn’t remove the old one - leaving two contradictory sections.
“The statute, as amended, is confusing and seems internally inconsistent,” Cooper said, but noted that the more specific and new language usually will supersede the general pre-existing text.
East Allen and the diocese are still in discussions about the future of the deal, according to officials.
Fernandes said the parish still has hope. If the deal falls through, he said the parish will use the money to upgrade its own building.
“You can take away the school, but you can’t take the dream away from our hearts,” he said. email@example.com