Greenwood learning lessons about vacant buildings

Even though the completion of a new middle school in Greenwood is years away, school officials have started researching what can be done with the school building on Madison Avenue once students and teachers move out.

School and city officials have been discussing whether the property could be used to help with downtown development, such as by housing shops and offices, with apartments and condominiums on the second and third floors, and restaurants similar to Revery.

But first, they must make sure that plan complies with a state law approved about four years ago that requires school districts to first offer buildings they aren’t using to charter schools, who would lease or buy the property for $1.

If no charter school wanted the building, the school district could then sell it to someone else.

But an attorney hired by the school district said the law wouldn’t apply in this case, and he cited a recent case in the Fort Wayne area.

Under the legislation, a vacant school building must be put on a statewide list that charter schools can review for any space they might want. Schools can apply for a waiver, saying no charter school is interested in the property. Otherwise, the school district would have to leave the property on the list for two years before it could be sold to someone else.

For Greenwood, the former school would be going to a government entity, which is allowed under a different section of the law, which specifies how local governments are allowed to sell or get rid of property, said Robert Rund, an attorney with Lewis and Kappes in Indianapolis.

Rund said the two sections of the law have to be read together, rather than as one section taking precedence over the other. The law allows a school district to give or sell property to another local government, he said. That legislation was updated this year to allow one government to sell a property to another, but the update did not include that schools had to follow the charter school legislation in that instance.

A recent court decision supports that argument, he said.

School officials asked Rund to research the issue, even though a potential sale is years away, because they wanted to know the law before they started the process, Greenwood Superintendent Kent DeKoninck said.

Selling the property to the city is appropriate and a good use of the property, since it would benefit all taxpayers, DeKoninck said.

That was a part of the point of a recent court ruling for two school districts in the Fort Wayne area that were selling former school buildings to interested buyers, which included an airport board and a Catholic diocese, Rund said.

The court ruled on the side of the school districts, which had argued they should be able to sell their properties to interested buyers, including one who had agreed to pay $189,000, instead of being required to wait a certain time period to see if a charter school was interested, he said.

In that case, the court decided it didn’t make sense to make the schools wait when they had buyers who wanted the properties and that money would benefit the schools, Rund said.

Right now, the school building is not vacant, so nothing needs to be done, Rund and DeKoninck said.

And the legislation could change again in the next two years before the new middle school is ready, Rund said.