November 18, 2023

Judge halts IPS sale of school, as legal fight between district and state continues

Francis Bellamy School 102 is on the city's Far Eastside. - Eric Weddle / WFYI

Francis Bellamy School 102 is on the city's Far Eastside.

Eric Weddle / WFYI
Updated 2:44 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023

A judge Friday temporarily stopped the sale of a building a day after it was approved by Indianapolis Public Schools to a local nonprofit organization until a legal fight between the district and Attorney General Todd Rokita is settled. 

The motion to stay granted by the Marion Superior Court was the latest development this week in the dispute over whether IPS can sell empty school buildings instead of being forced to follow a law that requires the property is sold to charter schools for $1.

IPS executives and elected school board members have long sought the ability to dispose of closed school buildings on their terms in the face of declining enrollment and fiscal challenges. 

District officials assert they qualify for an exemption to the so-called $1 law. But the Indiana Department of Education and Rokita argue IPS is required to sell the buildings to interested charter organizations. 

In August, IPS sued Rokita, the IDOE, and the State Board of Education in an effort to legally establish whether the district is exempt from the law.

On Monday, Marion Superior Court Judge Heather A. Welch ruled that IPS can sell its unused buildings under the exemption added to a law earlier this year. 

The IPS school board quickly moved to approve the sale of the closed Francis Bellamy School 102 to VOICES, a nonprofit offering youth programs, for $550,000.

On Wednesday, Rokita's office asked the judge to temporarily halt her decision as it prepared to file notice with the Indiana Court of Appeals. The office also warned any interested purchaser to "take heed" that the district can not "in good faith" sell or transfer the property until the appeals process plays out.

Thursday evening, the IPS school board unanimously approved a resolution to sell the school.

"We are excited for VOICES Corp. and the work they will continue to do in the community," Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said after the vote. Board members made no comments.

Then Friday, Marion Superior Court Judge Heather A. Welch agreed to Rokita’s request for a stay on her ruling.

This story was first published Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023:

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board approved the sale of a closed school building to a nonprofit organization Thursday — a day after state Attorney General Todd Rokita warned he would appeal a court ruling that allows the district to sell buildings instead of being forced to offer the property to charter schools for $1.

“Like every case, we take it head on and do not back down,” Rokita said in a statement. “We truly believe in parental rights, so we plan to file an appeal as soon as possible.”

Rokita’s office filed a motion for stay on the decision issued Monday by Marion Superior Court that favored IPS and rejected arguments from the attorney general's office. Rokita's office will soon file notice with the Indiana Court of Appeals, according to a media release.

The appeal continues the ongoing dispute between the state’s largest school district and proponents of school choice, including Rokita, multiple advocacy organizations and charter leaders.

IPS executives and elected school board members have long sought the ability to dispose of closed school buildings on their own terms in the face declining enrollment and academic challenges.

The trial court's ruling allowed IPS to move ahead this week to sell a school that was closed earlier this year as part of a district-wide overhaul

Now, Rokita is seeking to stop the sale from going forward.

"Any interested purchaser from IPS should take heed that until the appeals are exhausted and the litigation concluded, IPS will not be able, in good faith, to sell or transfer the buildings in dispute," the office said in a press release.  "Attorney General Rokita hopes that the trial court grants the stay, so that it is clear to IPS that further action by it is prohibited."

The warning did not stop moving the sale forward. The IPS school board unanimoulsy approved a resolution to sell of Francis Bellamy School 102 to VOICES, a nonprofit offering youth programs, for $550,000. 

"We are excited for VOICES Corp. and the work they will continue to do in the community," Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said after the vote Thursday. No comments were made by board members.

Much of the dispute is focused on the potential sale of the school. After the district decided to close the school, charter school Andrew J. Brown Academy had said it wanted to acquire it.

In August, state Education Secretary Katie Jenner told IPS officials that the district is subject to the $1 law — legislation that aims to give charter schools, which do not receive property taxes for facilities, access to vacant buildings

Soon after, IPS sued Rokita, the Indiana Department of Education and the State Board of Education in an attempt to legally establish whether the district is exempt from the $1 law.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers added an exemption to the law for school districts in Marion and three other counties that share funds from a property tax ballot referendum with a charter school.

IPS argued that the updated law exempted the district from the $1 provision because it previously shared property tax revenue with charters it partners with

Marion Superior Court Judge Heather A. Welch agreed, and wrote in the decision that IPS was free to sell its unused buildings.

On Wednesday, following Rokita's annoucement, an IPS spokesperson refered questions about the appeal to the district's previous statement on the trial court's judgement: "We’re proud that we have already worked with organizations and community members so that, along with a number of possible options, some of these buildings will serve students with mental health needs, deaf students, and adult learners," the statement said in part.

Contact WFYI education editor Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org

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