Law blocks school district from selling 2 schools
June 28, 2012 2:26PM
Updated: June 28, 2012 11:26PM
HARLAN (AP) — A northeastern Indiana school district may have to spend nearly $60,000 annually for at least the next three years to maintain a closed elementary school that it can’t sell because of a state law aimed at helping charter schools take over unused buildings.
A church wants to buy the former Harlan Elementary School from the East Allen County Schools but the law requires the district to make vacant buildings available to charter schools for four years.
The district’s plans to sell the closed Monroeville Elementary School to the Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese also stalled this spring because of the law.
Sunrise Chapel Pastor Lael Barkman said he wanted the Harlan school to be used again in the small town a few miles outside Fort Wayne.
“Our urgency isn’t about getting more church space; it’s about the community,” Barkman told The Journal Gazette. “It’s such a travesty. It’s just sitting there when it could get some good use.”
The law on the sale of unused schools was sponsored in 2011 by Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma who said the intent was to address situations in which public school districts were purposely refusing to sell buildings to charter schools to avoid competition.
No charter schools have shown any interest in the Harlan building, which costs about $58,000 a year to maintain, according to school district officials.
East Allen school board President Neil Reynolds said he doesn’t think the law makes any sense.
“I’d like to see the building be used for something,” Reynolds said. “That’s far better than having it sit there and deteriorate.”
Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, said he supports adding some flexibility into the law. While existing and future charter schools need time to examine locations, he said a four-year requirement might be a bit excessive.
“Part of the reason we advocated for these types of laws is because a vacant school building in a community is not a good thing for anyone,” he said. “We would certainly be open to working with the General Assembly and community groups to make sure that we identify them, but that they don’t just stay vacant.”
Barkman said he hoped his church could allow a Christian leadership training group and the local Harlan Christian Youth Center to use the school, along with others who wanted space.
“Most of the time when I go to town and visit the post office or banks, people say, ‘Any update on the school? We’re hoping for you to get it. We’re dying for you to get it,’ “ Barkman said. “We’ve already been talking about having a community day in celebration if we do.”