If Sunrise Chapel Pastor Lael Barkman had his way, Harlan Elementary School would spring to life again.
Its doors, shuttered a year ago, would be open to the small-town community. The school could be used by national Christian groups, Barkman’s own church and organizers of the local fair.
But for that to happen, Barkman’s church would need to be able to buy the vacant building. And under current state law, that can’t happen for at least three more years.
Barkman and his Harlan supporters are the second group of community members to come up against a 2011 law that gives charter schools the first option to buy vacant school buildings. The Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese tried to purchase Monroeville Elementary this past spring in hopes of converting it to a Catholic school but came across the same obstacle.
The law requires districts to put unused buildings on a list with the state Department of Education so that anyone interested in creating a charter school can find a possible location and lease or purchase the buildings for $1.
Even if no charter school expresses interest, the building has to sit unused for four years before it can be sold.
“Our urgency isn’t about getting more church space; it’s about the community,” Barkman said. “It’s such a travesty. It’s just sitting there when it could get some good use.”
East Allen County Schools closed Harlan Elementary at the end of the 2010-11 school year as part of a district redesign plan meant to help bring the district’s finances in line. Many in the town were distraught by the closing, fearing it would lead to the death of the town.
This past spring, Barkman’s church offered to purchase the building. But the offer was so low that state statute required the district to hold off for another offer.
By some interpretations of the law, the district had waited long enough without a high enough offer that it could re-advertise the building, and accept the offer from the church. But after EACS ran into problems with selling Monroeville Elementary, it put its plans to sell Harlan on hold.
To date, no charter school has showed interest in the property. To keep the building maintained, the district is spending $58,150 a year, according to district officials.
EACS school board President Neil Reynolds said he and other board members would like to find a way to give the building back to the community, and expressed frustration with the law.
“It doesn’t make sense at all,” he said of the legislation. “I’d like to see the building be used for something. That’s far better than having it sit there and deteriorate.”
The law regarding the sale of unused schools was authored by GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma who said the intent was to address situations in which districts were purposely refusing to sell buildings to charter schools to avoid competition. Only anecdotal evidence was offered in hearings on the legislation, and it focused on urban areas such as Indianapolis and Gary.
As it stands, the law has the possibility to affect several other schools EACS decided to close during its redesign process, including the buildings formerly or currently known as New Haven, Hoagland, Meadowbrook, Village and Woodburn elementary schools.
Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, said he supports adding some flexibility into the law. While existing and future charter schools need time to examine locations, he said a four-year requirement might be a bit excessive.
“Part of the reason we advocated for these types of laws is because a vacant school building in a community is not a good thing for anyone,” he said. “We would certainly be open to working with the General Assembly and community groups to make sure that we identify them, but that they don’t just stay vacant.”
In the meantime, Simnick said districts should follow the law as it is written. Several months ago, his group sent a letter to EACS asking it to back off a deal to sell Monroeville Elementary to the Catholic diocese. His organization has also filed suit against Fort Wayne Community Schools for trying to sell a closed elementary school to the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority.
Barkman believes that if his church acquires the school, the entire community will benefit. He counts the Harlan Park Authority, the town trustee, and the trustee board, and others as his supporters.
Although Barkman’s plan to use the school were still being finalized, he said he hoped to lend it out to Leaders Alive International, a Christian leadership training group, the local Harlan Christian Youth Center, and others who wanted space. The building could also be used by the community during Harlan Days, the annual fair, he said.
“Most of the time when I go to town and visit the post office or banks, people say, ‘Any update on the school? We’re hoping for you to get it. We’re dying for you to get it,’ ” he said. “We’ve already been talking about having a community day in celebration if we do.”