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Judge OKs sale of 2 vacant public schools

– An Allen Superior Court judge ruled two local public school districts can sell two vacant schools without letting the buildings languish for four years in case a future charter school wants to use them.

The ruling came Tuesday in two cases involving the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association and Fort Wayne Community Schools and East Allen County Schools.

In the case involving the Fort Wayne school district, the charter school 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 East Allen case, 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. Because the diocese has offered to buy the building, no existing charter school has expressed any interest in its use.

Another vacant East Allen elementary school – this one in Harlan – also sits unused. Sunrise Chapel expressed interest in the building and offered to buy it. But the church’s offer was so low, state law required the district to wait for another offer.

After East Allen ran into obstacles trying to sell Monroeville Elementary, the district put the sale of Harlan Elementary on hold.

At issue was whether amendments to the Indiana law governing the sale of abandoned school buildings mean that vacant classroom buildings have to sit on a waiting list for four years providing charter schools the opportunity to claim them for $1, or whether the districts can sell the buildings under long-held state laws if no existing charter school is asking for them at the time of the sale.

Attorneys for both districts argued that a plain reading of the statute said that the buildings go on the Department of Education list until another offer comes up or until a charter school expresses interest in buying or leasing it for $1.

Attorneys for the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association argued that a district cannot sell or dispose of a building until it sits on the list for four years, unclaimed by an interested charter school. But even if no charter expresses interest, the building must remain on the list.

In her 12-page ruling, Allen Superior Court Judge Nancy Boyer found in favor of the school districts. She said state law does not prohibit the districts from selling or transferring buildings to entities that want them.

She wrote that those amendments to the law, enacted in 2011 as part of a sweeping charter schools bill, did not modify or repeal the existing wording of state law and did not limit the school districts’ ability to transfer its own property.

“Reading (state law) to require a school corporation to refuse to sell or transfer unneeded property to a purchaser … forces a school corporation to bear the costs associated with maintaining an unneeded and unoccupied building for an unreasonably long period of time,” she wrote.

The 48-month time frame is not triggered unless a charter school files a letter of intent expressing interest in the building, Boyer wrote.

“(The) Charter Schools’ interpretation fails to protect taxpayer investment in school assets,” Boyer wrote. “Forcing unused school properties to sit idle for four years, even if no charter school is interested, is contrary to the public interest.”

School officials were pleased with the ruling.

Krista Stockman, Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman, said the ruling allows the district to follow through with its transfer of the Pleasant Center property.

“It is good for the community,” she said. “It takes care of a building that has been sitting empty since 2010.”

Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, respectfully disagreed with Boyer’s ruling.

“It essentially allows a district to get rid of a building at any time,” he said, adding that the association has not yet decided whether it will appeal.

Karyle Green, East Allen superintendent,said her district was confident it had followed Indiana law as it was written, and was glad that there is now a remedy outside of waiting for four years to get rid of the buildings.

In the past, and during the hearing in November, Simnick said he supported changes to the new law, shrinking the waiting period from four years, and had already spoken with legislators about possible amendments, which could occur during the 2013 legislative session.

rgreen@jg.net

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