IPS hopes to keep school buildings that might close by lobbying legislature

A run down building sits in front of a grass lawn with trees to the building’s right under a blue sky.

Seven Indianapolis Public Schools buildings would shut down at the end of this school year under the district’s proposed reorganization plan, which would make them available to charter school operators for the low cost of $1. 

District officials, however, are betting on their ability to successfully lobby the state legislature to keep those closed buildings. Current state law says such buildings must first be offered up to charter schools or state educational institutions for a $1 sale or annual lease price.

The district’s Rebuilding Stronger plan, which the school board will vote on in November, is a sweeping shake-up of the state’s largest district that attempts to tackle declining enrollment figures, racial inequities, and looming financial instability. 

The potential closure of seven school buildings comes five years after voters approved a referendum to pay for roughly $7 million in safety upgrades and construction for these specific sites and Sidener Academy for the Gifted, which would vacate its current building under the proposed plan. The funding was a portion of an overall $52 million capital referendum, one of two referenda passed in 2018. 

The district, however, reports that it has only spent $772,355 of that $7 million, mostly on security measures such as hardened exteriors, outdoor lighting, door improvements, and radios.

Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said she hopes to work with legislators to allow IPS to keep the buildings. 

“We want to make sure our buildings are used in a way to support the community and can bring value to the community, even if it is in a different way than it is being used today,” she said at a public community meeting on Sept. 21. 

The correct interpretation of the $1 law itself is disputed. A charter school hoping to open in Carmel has sued the school district there, alleging that the district violated the law when it closed an elementary school to instruction and announced plans  with the city’s parks department for potential uses. The state attorney general’s office concluded that Carmel Clay Schools was not in violation of the law, since the building is still in use and occupied by the district. That lawsuit is ongoing.

Regardless, petitioning lawmakers to carve out flexibility for IPS in the law could prove a tough sell. 

A bill that would have given IPS an exemption from the state’s $1 law — while also requiring all school districts to share referendum tax dollars with charter schools  — failed to pass the last legislative session earlier this year. 

“It’s not an easy issue — I think there’s a lot of people who have questions about whether or not that’s the right way to go,” said Rep. Robert Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who chaired the last session’s education committee and cosponsored the bill. “I think you’ll find there may be some other solutions that we may be looking at this session that would work a little bit differently.”

Prime real estate

The buildings to be vacated under the Rebuilding Stronger plan are strewn throughout the district, from the Center for Inquiry at School 2 in the trendy downtown neighborhood near Chatham-Arch to George Buck Elementary School 94 on the far eastside. 

Three of the schools would merge with other existing schools at the end of this school year, leaving the buildings without students. Four of the schools would close completely.

One of those seven buildings, Francis Parker Montessori 56, would be vacated and later torn down for the district to build a new site for the Sidener Academy for High Ability Students. The move would leave Sidener’s building, which sits off Keystone Avenue near the city’s Glendale neighborhood, empty for the 2026-27 school year and beyond.

IPS has successfully avoided handing over its buildings to charter schools for $1, in part because of its unique pre-existing relationship with charters. Many of its innovation network schools — most of which are run by charter operators — already operate in IPS buildings. 

The district also struck a deal with Purdue Polytechnic High School for the charter school to occupy the Broad Ripple High School building this year as it awaits a permanent building down the street. 

And when the district closed John Marshall Middle School in 2018, it made the building available to potential charter operators but no one claimed it, according to Johnson. The school board voted to sell the building to a nonprofit to create a neighborhood support center known as the John Marshall Opportunity Hub.

Johnson is hoping to use the same argument with lawmakers that the district has used in previous legislative sessions. 

“The law was created to incentivize or require traditional districts to partner with charters or have buildings (that are) empty be available to charter schools,” Johnson said. “We would argue that we have done that. We have demonstrated many times our willingness to collaborate with charter schools.” 

IPS is already sharing some of its 2018 referendum funds with charter schools that are considered part of the district under its innovation network. IPS is the first district in the state to do so. 

Under that agreement reached last year, 25 charter-operated schools receive $500 per pupil, a total cost of $5 million per year, from the operating referendum expected to generate $220 million over eight years. Some of those charter schools have since closed.

‘Parity in funding’ for charters?

But the district will likely have to negotiate a compromise if it wants some sort of relief from the $1 law. 

Behning said he does not think there is any appetite in the legislature for a bill that only repeals the requirements of the $1 law for IPS. 

Sharing referendum dollars with its innovation charter schools was a great first step, he said, but it has not been enough for lawmakers to fully repeal the $1 law for the district. 

“The charter movement is very interested in getting closer to parity in funding,” Behning said. “And some of those in the charter movement believe that [an IPS exemption to the $1 law]  actually would create more disparity, not less.” 

But sharing referendum money with all charters within IPS boundaries would not be financially sustainable for the district, according to Weston Young, the district’s chief financial officer. 

After next year’s legislative session ends — when the district will know for sure what, if any, restrictions there are on its empty buildings — IPS will create a reuse advisory committee in June 2023 to figure out the best uses for the buildings.

Corrections and Clarifications: This story was updated to include that eight schools received the $772,355 IPS spent on safety measures as part of the $52 million capital referendum.

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org.

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