Scott Miller had an offer on the table.
The superintendent of Hammond City Schools had a couple of older buildings that were no longer needed for classroom instruction, Gavit and Clark high schools.
“I actually have a buyer,” said Miller.
It was the city of Hammond. Miller said the city government was interested in repurposing the structures for economic development. Not all the details were worked out, but the superintendent shared this much, “It would be in the millions. I don’t have an exact number, but it would be in the millions.”
Potentially, a pretty nice windfall for an urban school district with declining enrollment and decades of maintenance invested in both buildings.
But there would be no deal.
A state law that went into effect in July 2021 requires any local school building used for student instruction that is closed must be sold or leased to a charter school that wants it for one dollar.
Miller has kept control of the two high schools by keeping some level of activity at the buildings although student instruction has been moved to two other Hammond high schools.
“We haven’t officially said they’re worthless or unused is probably a better word. We haven’t said that officially in Hammond,” explains Miller.
What Miller did instead was successfully urge Hammond schools to join school districts from Lake Ridge and West Lafayette to challenge the state law in court claiming the dollar-for-a-school law violated both state and federal constitutions.
But the defendants in the case, which included Governor Eric Holcomb and the Indiana Department of Education, prevailed when the case reached the state Court of Appeals.
In the unanimous 3-0 decision, Judge Nancy Vaidik cited three US Supreme Court decisions supporting the state law. The oldest of the three, the 1907 Hunter v. City of Pittsburgh case found local governments “are political subdivisions of…state (government)”, and therefore, “The state…may take (property from local governments) without compensation…”.
Indiana University law school professor Steve Sanders said the ruling is on solid legal ground.
“School districts, counties, cities, all exist legally because they are creatures of state law. They’re created by the state. They don’t have an independent existence of a sovereignty aside from having been created by the state,” explained Sanders.
The options for school districts involved in the suit seemingly boil down to a pair of options, and neither are easy. An appeal could be filed to either the Indiana Supreme Court or challenge the ruling in the federal court system in hopes of a US Supreme Court review. The other option would be to convince the GOP-dominated state legislature to change or repeal the law.
Miller said his school district is still weighing what it may do next, but there is evidence the parking of school buildings to keep them out of the hands of charter schools is expanding.
The board of education for Indianapolis Public Schools recently approved the district’s proposed “Building Stronger” consolidation plan. It means instruction ends at the Belamy pre-school and the Parker, Miller, Buck, Torrence and Brandes elementary schools at the conclusion of the current school year.
The district insists the buildings will not close and will be used for other purposes including staff training, meetings, and storage. That provides what appears to be an effective way of not surrendering the buildings to charter schools, at least for now.