Indiana House OKs looser rules on selling old schools

School districts would get a break on how long they have to hold onto their vacant buildings as possible charter school sites under a measure the Indiana House approved Monday.

Legislators proposed the changes after two school districts in the Fort Wayne area ran into legal troubles trying to sell unused buildings even though no charter school operators wanted them.

The House voted 98-0 in favor of cutting the current four-year waiting period to two years and allowing a fast-track, 30-day period for selling a closed school. The bill now goes to the Senate, which already is considering a similar measure.

The 2011 law on the sale of unused schools was sponsored 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.

Rep. Matthew Lehman, R-Berne, said he sponsored the changes because the four-year waiting period was too long since the school districts faced spending thousands of dollars to maintain the vacant buildings.

The bill would allow school districts with an interested buyer to seek a waiver from the state Department of Education on the two-year waiting period. The department would then give a 30-day window for a charter school operator to claim the building by giving notice to the state charter schools association and charter school sponsors, including the Indiana Charter Schools Board, Ball State University and the Indianapolis mayor's office.

Any charter school wanting to take over a vacant building would have to have a plan to start using it for classroom instruction within a year.

House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said the bill improves what he believes is a bad current law that allows privately operated charter schools to take over public property for $1.

"I wish we would repeal the whole thing, but I do believe this bill makes it substantially better," Pelath said.

An Allen County judge ruled against the current law in December, finding that the waiting period didn't change other laws on how school districts can sell property and forced districts to incur unnecessary costs.

The Indiana Public Charter Schools Association had challenged the Fort Wayne Community Schools' plan to sell an unused elementary school building to the county airport board and the East Allen County district's attempt to sell a vacant school to the Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.