Bill would compel districts to close underused buildings, offer them to charters

A bill in the Indiana Senate would significantly expand a state law that requires school districts to make their empty buildings available to charter schools.

While existing state law compels districts to make vacant or unused buildings available to sell or lease to charter schools for $1, Senate Bill 391 would clarify that the law also applies to an “underutilized” building.

It would require districts to compile an annual report of the buildings it uses for instruction to determine if any are underused, which the bill would define as occupied at less than 60% capacity. Underutilized buildings would be closed, and charter schools would be notified, unless the district could prove it uses a building for other qualified purposes.

The proposal would also allow charter schools or the state Department of Education to request a review at any time of whether a school building should be closed. And districts that don’t comply with the law would be subject to a funding penalty, losing 3% of their state tuition support for 12 months.

Bill author Sen. Linda Rogers (R-Granger) said the purpose of the bill was to provide more clarity to the existing laws that govern school building closures.

The state has recently seen several high-profile cases of charter schools accusing public school districts of unfairly holding onto buildings that they say should be offered under the $1 law. In one example, a judge ruled last month that Carmel Clay Schools in Hamilton County did not violate the law by closing an elementary school and refusing to offer it to the Hillsdale College-supported Valor Classical Academy. The judge cited the “ambiguity” of existing law.

“Taxpayers paid for that building to be used for public education,” Rogers said. “All too often, buildings are being kept open to use for storage or offices, when there are much less expensive options available.”

The bill applies only to districts where enrollment has dropped by at least 10% over five years and where there is another suitable building serving the same grades located within 20 minutes of the targeted building.

It provides exceptions for buildings being used for alternative programs, storage, or office space, but districts must meet certain requirements, like using at least half of the building for storage and exploring other potentially less expensive options that would serve the purpose.

The bill would turn authority over building closures—which currently rests with the Attorney General’s office—to the Department of Education.

If passed, the bill likely would immediately affect districts like Indianapolis Public Schools, which is in the midst of a plan to restructure its use of underutilized buildings. A district facility condition report found that the district’s average utilization rate is 60%, with some schools operating far below capacity.

The bill heard mixed public testimony at the Senate Education and Career Development Committee Wednesday, serving as a proxy in the long-standing fight between charter and traditional public school advocates.

Many speakers said the expansion of the law would impact a local school board’s authority to decide what to do with its buildings. One district requested an amendment that would exempt districts if a school building is being used for a not-for-profit educational program, like a Boys & Girls Club.

Jerrell Blakely of the Indiana State Teachers Association objected to a provision that would allow charter schools to request reviews of school buildings.

“There is nothing to deter an interested party from tying up the school board for months in bad faith,” Blakely said. “There are no penalties for trying to take a building without merit.”

But charter supporters said charter schools don’t have access to property tax funding as traditional districts do, and thus can’t accommodate growing interest in their programs. The legislature also is considering bills this year that would compel districts to share property tax dollars with charters.

“This funding disparity forces charter schools to pay for their facilities amongst other expenses out of the tuition support dollars used to educate their students,” said Molly Collins of the Institute for Quality Education, a nonprofit organization that advocates for charter education.

Lawmakers did not vote on the proposal, but Rogers said she would consider some of the testimony in making any changes ahead of next week’s hearing.

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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14 thoughts on “Bill would compel districts to close underused buildings, offer them to charters

  1. The forced sale of multi- million dollar school buildings for $1.00 to a charter school that can shut down on a whim at anytime is nuts. If the State wants to provide free buildings to charter schools it should buy them at market value , maintain and operate them off the property tax rolls. Then deal with their flighty tenants themselves.

  2. Why not use the buildings as a homeless shelter? Non-profit incubator? Public service headquarters?

    Tax payers own the building. Keep it that way and let the buildings serve the community.

    1. Have you thought about the cost of conversion and upkeep as well as where that money would come from, which will be on the taxpayers, if the building is turned into a homeless shelter? Of course you did not.

    2. … that would fall upon the new owner of the building.

      Why should local school districts be forced to divest assets to charter schools? Why are they preferred? Why should IPS be held hostage by the Indiana legislature over Broad Ripple High School?

      Charters are not getting better results (and kids do worse) despite being freed from any number rules that public schools have to follow.

      I’m all for school choice. If you live in Wayne Township and want to transfer to Avon, you should be able to.

      I’m also for making sure that we don’t lose our taxpayer dollars to fly by night charter operators that close in the middle of the year that should have never been allowed to receive one cent, leaving parents in the lurch.

      I’m for holding charter schools to the same standards that we hold public schools to. If they don’t want to follow those rules, fine, find another source of funding. Catholic schools existed for many years without voucher dollars.

      We demand accountability with tax dollars for everything but school vouchers. It’s puzzling, that.

  3. A) there should be more accountability with charters, and B) if there are not enough kids to fill the school in the first place, what makes legislators think a charter would be any different?

  4. IPS should put the issue to a referendum vote. Taxpayers paid for these facilities, and taxpayers should decide how they should be disposed of: a buck for a building, or something closer to actual market value? I know I would vote for the latter.

  5. The whole “charter school” situation is out of control in Indiana.

    If these charter schools want the same per-student funding from the state then they have to agree to ALL of the federal, state and local requirements that the public schools have to follow. Here in Indianapolis, if the charter schools want more funding, then it should come from the state – not IPS. Likewise, if they want to purchase a building for their use, let them come up with a fair market price, so as to compensate the school patrons of that district for their investment. Our public financed buildings shouldn’t be up for a buck, as though it were a K-Mart blue light special.

    And, while we’re at it, it is a REALLY BAD idea to make our school board elections “partisan” in any way, shape, or form. I served two terms as a school board member and also was the president of the Board. NEVER once was I asked about my political party affiliations in reference to the job I was doing. During the time I was fortunate to serve the community, we hired a superintendent (who is now in his 13th year), our schools consistently been nat the very top of the state academically (and that’s a credit to our kids, teachers and admins, as well as the support their families provide), we have a great Senior Academy (that when it was built, was one of the first in the country). And our property taxes for our schools haven’t been raised in years. And we’re continuing to grow.

    The people who support this lame excuse for legislation want to control the curriculum (based on their own PERSONAL views and biased against the kids who don’t look like their kids and/or were raised in a way that was different than their kids), they’ll tell you in one breath that they support teachers, and they’ll turn around and tell you that they should decide the lesson plans for what is taught in the classroom. All of the mayhem that’s been caused at school board meetings has had nothing to do with academic achievement and, if they had their way, we’d go back to the 1950s.

    If you’re going to build a bridge that’s safe for people to cross, you’d hire an engineer. If you were going to appear in court to defend yourself, you’d hire an attorney. So, when did it become a good idea for us to stop listening or trusting the experts in education for teaching our kids? It makes no sense.

    1. +1

      I am tremendously irritated for my the school tax tax dollars I have been paying, getting transferred a private organization that has no educational oversight! With no oversight, it guarantees that they can keep the kids isolated and the curriculum limited so teaching about slavery become “forced immigration from Africa”, and we have a whole new generation of misinformed MAGA wannabes.

      In central Indiana, this is just a way for “concerned” parents to transfer kids out of “undesirable” (read not enough well off white kids) schools. At the same time it drains money from the public schools to make sure they fail. The worst part about this, is many of these schools are religious organizations that are getting my tax dollars.

      In the rural parts of the state where there isn’t enough population to support a charter school, there is still no school “choice”. So they’re just blowing smoke to their ever hopeful MAGA base.

    2. Dan, that’s why they’re going to overthrow the school boards. They have to blame someone for why their towns are dying off, so why not the schools who dare make their kids so smart that they have hopes and dreams that can only be achieved by leaving and moving to Indianapolis, if not out of state?

  6. Competition is good. Even with schools. While school administrators traditionally do a terrible job of managing the business side of education, equal funding would minimize some of these situations. Likewise, the charter administrator (Ball State in the most recent failing of Him by Her) should be monitoring performance and board stewardship and be held accountable. That said, this real estate should be sold at market value to whomever can put it to good use. Anything less is another example of poor governmental oversight.

  7. This is more screw-Indianapolis legislation from our cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face Indiana legislature. Anything that harms Indianapolis is attractive to these people. They are dead-set on destroying our traditional public schools.