April 12, 2022

Proposed charter school sues Carmel Schools over $1 building law

Carmel Clay Schools closed Orchard Park Elementary last summer after school board members voted to stop using the facility for instruction in June 2018. Since then, the district has used the facility for storage and training and is working with Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation to create a new park or other types of collaborative use at the location. - (Courtesy photo)

Carmel Clay Schools closed Orchard Park Elementary last summer after school board members voted to stop using the facility for instruction in June 2018. Since then, the district has used the facility for storage and training and is working with Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation to create a new park or other types of collaborative use at the location.

(Courtesy photo)

The organizers behind a proposed charter school linked to a conservative private college have filed a lawsuit in Hamilton County Superior Court against Carmel Clay Schools to settle a dispute over who can use a shuttered school building.

Carmel Clay Schools closed Orchard Park Elementary last summer after school board members voted to stop using the facility for instruction in June 2018. This was part of the district’s plan to build two new elementary schools.

The district has since used the facility for storage and training and is working with Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation to create a new park or other types of collaborative use at the location.

But a group organizing a new charter school alleges that Carmel Clay violated the so-called “$1 law” passed by lawmakers in 2011, that gives established charter schools or prospective charters a chance to lease or buy unused buildings for $1. Valor Classical Academy maintains Carmel Clay failed to notify the state for its “official action to close or no longer use for instruction” the school building.

The Attorney General’s Office received a complaint in December 2021, claiming Carmel Clay didn’t notify the state that Orchard Park Elementary would no longer be used after May 2021. But the Attorney General’s Office found that the district had not violated the law since the building is still in use.

The law

When districts close schools without plans to use the building, they must notify the Indiana Department of Education within 10 days of making the decision to close a school building. Before districts can sell or demolish them, charter schools have the chance to buy or lease the empty buildings for $1.

If more than one charter school wants the same building, a group of representatives from Indiana’s charter school authorizers will decide between the two schools.

A 2021 change to the law also allows the Indiana Attorney General's Office to address complaints filed against school districts that allegedly aren’t following the law.

The lawsuit

The lawsuit filed by Indiana Classical Schools alleges the Carmel Clay School Board triggered the unused building law when it voted in June 2018 to end instruction in Orchard Park Elementary. Indiana Rep. Chris Jeter (R-Fishers), who is also an attorney, is representing Indiana Classical Schools.

The lawsuit asks the court to settle the disagreement between Valor and the district over whether the district should have notified the state that the building was no longer in use.

“Orchard Park is owned by the taxpayers and is no longer being used for classroom instruction,” Valor founder Holly Wilson said in a press release. “We’d like to restore this facility back to a productive use by opening a classical school that supports parents, students, and educators and adds new opportunities and value to this vibrant community.”

District response

Carmel Clay did not notify the state after the school board voted to close the school because the district is still using the facility as storage and for professional development training. 

In a statement Tuesday, the district said it is working with the Carmel parks department to find a use for the building.

“The Orchard Park property is an important asset to the neighborhood and we remain pleased to partner with Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation for the property’s future use to benefit our entire community,” said the district’s email statement. “We are aware of the lawsuit initiated by Indiana State Representative Christopher Jeter on behalf of the Indiana Classical Schools Corporation. The response to a complaint with the Indiana Attorney General’s office confirmed we have been fully compliant with the law regarding the use of our property. CCS will now efficiently address the matter through the judicial process as needed.”

The proposed school

Valor Classical Academy is a proposed K-6 charter school that plans to open for the 2023-2024 school year. It plans to offer a “classical, civic-centered education rooted in American heritage and focused on character and virtue,” according to a press release. The school would partner with Hillsdale College, a small conservative liberal arts college in Hillsdale, Michigan.

Valor is seeking charter authorization from the private Grace College in Winona Lake.

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at egabriel@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @_elizabethgabs.

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