Two charter schools are competing to buy an elementary building in South Bend under a controversial Indiana law that forces districts to sell or lease closed schools for $1.
After the South Bend school board voted earlier this year to close Tarkington Elementary School, the state added it to a list of unused buildings that charter schools can buy. Two schools submitted letters of interest: Career and Success Academy of South Bend, which runs three schools in the city, and the Paramount Schools of Excellence, an Indianapolis charter network.
This is the first time the state process for deciding between two charter schools that want the same building will be put to the test, according to the Indiana Department of Education. Under the law, the decision rests with a group of charter school authorizers, which oversee charter schools.
Each statewide charter school authorizer will appoint a representative to a committee that must decide which school gets the building by June 29.
The so-called “$1 law” was passed by lawmakers in 2011 and is rarely used to purchase buildings. The aim of the law is to give charter schools, which do not receive property taxes for facilities, access to vacant buildings. But it remains controversial because traditional public school districts do not want to give facilities to schools that will compete for students.
If it receives the building, the Paramount network would use the school to open its first campus outside of Indianapolis. Paramount leaders were already considering a South Bend school when the Tarkington facility was added to the state $1 list, said Tommy Reddicks, CEO of Paramount.
"A lot of times the real estate market, the commercial real estate, may drive the opportunity game," Reddicks said. "When the market finds you with a $1 building, it pushes us real fast to check the viability of that location."
The other network vying for the building, Career and Success Academy, opened its first school a decade ago in South Bend. Now, its schools are nearing capacity and the network hopes to open another elementary school, said Superintendent Alex Hammel.
"We don't want to go around building new buildings or converting other buildings when we've got existing facilities that are purpose made for exactly what we're looking for," he said.
The South Bend schools will also close a second campus this year, but the district did not put Hay Elementary on the list of available buildings because a private school has a lease for the property, said Brian Kubicki, general counsel for South Bend schools.
Although the private school is not currently using the Hay facility, a couple of years ago the South Bend Schools signed a lease giving the private school the right to the building when the district vacates it, Kubicki said. Because the law was recently amended, the district is assessing whether it will also be required to sell Hay to a charter school for $1.
Traditional districts have repeatedly pushed back against the $1 law. Three public school districts sued the state over the law in an ongoing case, arguing that it is taking district property without due process. Indianapolis Public Schools, meanwhile, has been lobbying state policymakers to change the law so the district can sell the valuable Broad Ripple High School facility on the open market without offering it to charter schools first.
Despite the attention it receives, however, the $1 law is seldom used. A spokeswoman said the Indiana Department of Education does not track when schools are purchased under the law. But in 2017, a department official told Chalkbeat Indiana that although records were limited, it appeared just one school had been purchased using the law. That year, one other building was purchased using the law.