WEST LAFAYETTE – A pair of Northwest Indiana school districts, fearing they might have to give up recently vacated classroom space for $1 to a charter school, followed West Lafayette Community School Corporation’s lead, filing a lawsuit challenging a state law they say is unconstitutional.
The Lake Ridge School Corp. and School City of Hammond filed a suit naming Gov. Eric Holcomb, the State Board of Education and the Indiana Department of Education, arguing that the state law – passed in 2011 and designed as a key piece of Indiana’s school reform movement – treated the districts unfairly and amounted to a “taking without just compensation.”
A day after the lawsuit was filed in Lake Superior Court, court records showed the two districts dropped their request to join a similar West Lafayette Community School Corp. challenge under consideration in Tippecanoe Circuit Court.
“It’s almost a mirror image,” Sara Blevins, an attorney for Lake Ridge School Corp. and School City of Hammond, said of the districts’ claims compared to the ones filed in November by West Lafayette.
Blevins said in November that the districts were pondering filing their own case if West Lafayette’s challenge was dismissed in Tippecanoe County. She declined to comment on the strategy of filing a separate case at this point. But in November, she told the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, “I can tell you, every school district in the state is interested in this case.”
West Lafayette Superintendent Rocky Killion welcomed the news out of Lake County, even if his district lost an ally in its pre-emptive effort to protect Happy Hollow Elementary. Happy Hollow closed as classroom space at 1200 N. Salisbury St. when the district opened West Lafayette Intermediate School a half-mile away in 2018.
“I’m concerned that our local judge does not want to hear this case,” Killion said. “Therefore, I am more hopeful that with another lawsuit pending, a judge in Lake County might be more apt to hear this case opposed to possibly throwing it out due to a perceived technicality. Also, I’m hopeful that other school districts will be joining in. I think the question regarding the legality of this charter school law is gaining some momentum.”
During an initial hearing in late November, Kelly Earls, a deputy attorney general representing the state, argued that West Lafayette didn’t have a case because no charter school had asked to have Happy Hollow. The state argued that West Lafayette therefore couldn’t prove it was being harmed and that the district’s claims about a threat to take property were based on a hypothetical scenario and weren’t “ripe” for a judge to consider.
During that hearing, Tippecanoe Circuit Judge Sean Persin asked several times about why West Lafayette was filing the case and whether the challenge of the law might be better served somewhere in the state where a charter school already had laid claim on property that was no longer being used for classrooms.
Bob Reiling, West Lafayette schools’ attorney, argued that the state law posed a threat that made it impractical for West Lafayette to plan for what’s next for Happy Hollow Elementary. Killion said the district would eventually like to convert the Happy Hollow property into an early childhood center. Until the end of 2020, the city of West Lafayette is leasing Happy Hollow for $750,000 a year as a temporary city hall.
Earls asked the judge to dismiss the case. Reiling told the judge that no matter what happens in the Tippecanoe County courtroom, the lawsuit eventually would land before the Indiana Supreme Court.
Even if the district was forced to give up the property, listed by the district in court documents as worth $6 million, West Lafayette should get a fair price, well over $1, for a facility originally paid for through local property taxes, not state funds, Reiling argued.
The 2011 law was intended to give charter schools – public schools created under Indiana law as alternatives to traditional public schools – a shot at vacant buildings for relatively little money. In 2019, the legislature adjusted the law, requiring schools to notify the state within 10 days of passing a resolution to close or no longer use a school building that had been used for classroom instruction. Charter schools would get 30 days to submit a request to lease or purchase the building for $1.
In November, Persin ordered West Lafayette to submit Happy Hollow Elementary to that process at the Indiana Department of Education.
No charter school called dibs on Happy Hollow by the Dec. 27 deadline, Adam Baker, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said Friday.
“Once it goes back to the school, it’s the school’s property and their decision on how they wish to move forward,” Baker said.
Killion said he wasn’t comfortable with that assurance.
“With the vagueness of the law, my continued concern is whether or not at some future point, can a charter school seek to lease Happy Hollow for $1?” Killion said. “I think the law has the potential of being interpreted differently.”
Whether the state’s position, laid out against West Lafayette’s case, would change given the case in Lake County wasn’t immediately clear. The attorney general’s office did not have an immediate response to questions Friday.
According to this week’s court documents filed in Lake County, School City of Hammond has closed three elementary schools in the past year and plans to close two more schools at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Lake Ridge recently closed an elementary, too. According to court documents, the districts have an interest in selling or exchanging the properties.
In December, 1,040 taxpayers in West Lafayette Community School Corp. signed a petition to join the district’s challenge of the $1 charter school law.
West Lafayette’s case is scheduled for its next hearing Feb. 3 in Tippecanoe Circuit Court.