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The Journal Gazette

  • File Dr. Odelet Nance, center, dean of Vincennes University, talks with an East Allen University student as EAU principal Doug Hicks walks by on the early-college program’s first day of classes in 2012. United Pastors of Fort Wayne, seeking to reopen Paul Harding High School, filed a lawsuit seeking to block a proposed building referendum. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 4:17 pm

Cross purposes

Since the Indiana General Assembly passed a school referendum law in 2008, Indiana districts have faced tougher odds when asking taxpayers to support building improvements. East Allen County Schools, however, might face the toughest of all: A proposed referendum, one that does not yet have final approval, is the target of a lawsuit.

Pastor Robert Bell filed the suit last week, calling the district’s referendum process “flawed, rushed, unfair, arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory.” Some of those terms apply to the lawsuit itself – the referendum isn’t set until a public hearing in January.

Bell and United Pastors of Fort Wayne, the group behind the lawsuit, can serve students and the community better if they work with the school district to address whatever flaws they find in the proposed $87.5 million referendum. 

The suit was filed in Allen Superior Court on behalf of black students, as well as residents and taxpayers within the district, seeking to block the referendum. 

Among the claims:

• The referendum process lacked transparency. Yet discussions involving building improvement needs have generally been under way for years; the specifics have been discussed for months. Five community meetings took place in September to talk about a building project.

• Students and community members in the Harding attendance area in southeast Fort Wayne are “marginalized” because it is the only area of the district without a full-service high school. East Allen University, which opened in the fall of 2012 after the struggling Paul Harding High School was closed, is a four-year high school in which students graduate with an associate’s degree from Vincennes University. Students, including many from the Harding area, aren’t complaining about the school, it’s just the adults.

• The referendum project list is discriminatory because expenditures in the Harding area represent “routine maintenance” items. The suit claims the board would not consider a request made less than a month earlier to build an addition to the Harding building and restore the program as a comprehensive high school.

The lawsuit is a disappointing response to efforts by the East Allen administration and school board to equitably and responsibly serve students in the district. There’s a telling clue to the group’s real aims in a comment one of its members, Stephen Terry, made to the school board on Nov. 3, when he called for an addition to East Allen University to restore the school as a comprehensive high school. Terry declared that adding career education to EAU’s early-college program – and restoring sports teams – could produce a basketball championship.

Sports championships should never be a consideration in making school board policy. The EACS board, of which Terry is a former member, made a responsible decision when it supported the district redesign plan and established the early-college program. Since that time, the administration and faculty have rightly focused on raising achievement districtwide, with encouraging results. 

If the United Pastors group is truly concerned about student achievement in the Harding attendance area, it would have been involved much earlier in the process and would seek a better avenue for influencing the final referendum proposal than a lawsuit. The East Allen board has long struggled to find common ground, and the 5-2 vote on the referendum proposal shows it has yet to achieve it. But the progress the district has made in smoothing out inequities among its disparate attendance areas is evident. United Pastors should put student welfare first and work with the board instead of against it.