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A sensible ruling for public schools

EACS’ Monroeville Elementary

Allen Superior Court Judge Nancy Boyer restored some common sense to the state’s misguided and conflicting policy affecting how traditional public school districts treat closed school buildings. The policy had conflicted with other state laws, was bad for taxpayers and – in at least one case involving East Allen County Schools – had the opposite effect of its goal of broadening school choice for parents.

Boyer ruled that state law does not prevent EACS from selling its vacant Monroeville Elementary School to the area Catholic diocese for use as a parochial school. The district sought clarity from the court after the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association sued Fort Wayne Community Schools to block its sale of the shuttered Pleasant Center Elementary School to the airport authority, owner of nearby Fort Wayne International Airport.

Both lawsuits centered on a 2011 law that requires traditional public school corporations to sell or lease any unused building to a charter school for $1. The law appears to require – and the charter schools group argued – that public school corporations must wait four years to dispose of any building, in case a charter school wants it.

But when lawmakers adopted that law, they did not change existing language that dictates the steps a government entity must go through to sell a building. Boyer ruled that when taking the law as a whole – both the previous language and the new charter school language – schools need wait four years only if a charter school sends a letter of intent to buy or lease the building. In other words, the four-year clock does not start when the building becomes vacant but when a charter school says it wants the building. Schools can, Boyer ruled, proceed with a sale unless a charter school has declared its intent.

If the charter schools group had prevailed, school districts would have had to pay to maintain buildings for four years and could not help school finances by selling buildings. Further, in the case of the Monroeville school, the Catholic Church wanted to start a new school there, giving parents more choice – the legislature’s stated intent in promoting charter schools. Most Indiana charters are in urban areas, and East Allen officials might well have waited four years with no charter school showing any interest in the structure.

“Charter Schools’ interpretation requires a school corporation to maintain the physical building and property and to insure the vacant buildings as well. All of these costs are borne by the taxpayers,” Boyer wrote. “In the case of EACS, not only would EACS be required to maintain and insure its vacant building, it also must reject a bona fide offer of purchase for $189,000.”

Officials with the charter schools group could appeal the ruling, but they must consider that if the Indiana Court of Appeals upholds Boyer, that decision would set a statewide precedent. In addition, lawmakers who learned of the Monroeville situation expressed concerns that the 2011 law should not prevent a school district from proceeding with a legitimate sale that would help taxpayers.

Lawmakers may well decide to bring clarity to the law in their next session, and the idea of setting a time period shorter than four years has been mentioned. But Hoosiers might well be best served by following Boyer’s sound reasoning – public schools need not incur the costs to taxpayers of waiting four years to see whether a charter school wants to claim first dibs on a building.

In their willingness to promote more school choice, legislators have favored charters over traditional public schools in several ways. But even charter school supporters should agree that making a school district wait four years for an offer that may never come is foolhardy and a disservice to taxpayers.