A lease agreement for the unused Galena Elementary School building was signed between the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. and its holding corporation Tuesday morning.
The lease allows the corporation to maintain control of the building, which means it wouldn’t have to sell or lease the building to a charter school for four years, should one be interested in the property.
New state legislation — House Bill 1002 — has provisions that would allow charter schools to purchase or lease unused school buildings from corporations.
Brad Snyder, deputy superintendent, said according to the corporation’s legal opinion, the legislation also gives school corporations wiggle room on keeping their properties.
“We think the law intentionally gives school corporations the ability to do what we did, which was lease an existing asset to another entity,” Snyder said. “That’s what this whole thing triggers on.”
Snyder said the legal opinion of the corporation is based on a section of the legislation that says, “This subsection does not apply to a school building that on July 1, 2011, is leased or loaned by the school corporation that owns the school building to another entity.”
But the opinion of the Indiana Department of Education differs from that of the corporation. In a previous story, Lauren Auld Schregardus with IDOE, said IDOE holds that buildings should be used for the benefit of children, not the school corporation.
“We support the effect of 1002 — to make sure these buildings paid for by taxpayer funds are being used to educate children,” Auld Schregardus said. “We must remember the buildings belong to the taxpayers for the benefit of the kids; they don't belong to school corporations.”
She went on to say that taxpayers might want to think about questioning the motives of the school corporation.
“If I was a local taxpayer, I would ask if that’s the best use of property that’s been paid for by taxpayers to let it sit vacant or if there is a better purpose for it, such as turning it over to the students in that community for educational purposes,” Auld Schregardus said.
The school corporation has favored the legal opinion of IDOE on Senate Bill 575, which limits collective bargaining terms for teachers, but differs in opinion on HB 1002.
Snyder said IDOE has been clear on its interpretation of SB 575, but hasn’t been as forthcoming on its stance of HB 1002.
“The only time I’m aware of them expressing their opinion is when local media has asked them,” Snyder said. “I think it’s unfair to compare those two things because the DOE has taken a very firm position on one and not with the other. To say we’re inconsistent with that, I don’t see the rationale of that argument.”
The meeting Tuesday morning between Snyder, Superintendent Bruce Hibbard and the New Albany-Floyd County School Building Corp. ended with a 4-0 vote in favor of the agreement from the building corporation. One member, Everett Bickers, was absent from the meeting.
The agreement leases the property to the building corporation for a term of four years at $1 per year. The agreement is renewable for up to four terms.
The school corporation is responsible for paying for all utilities, surveillance and insurance on the building. Snyder said he estimated that to cost the school corporation about $8,500 per year.
Bob Kleehamer, president of the building corporation, said the discussion before the vote revolved mostly around whether the agreement would be legal.
“We talked about that and we talked about the purpose of the building, just general comments of what the status was,” Kleehamer said. “Both Brad [Snyder] and Bruce [Hibbard] indicated that again, it was in the best interest of the school corporation that we do this.”
He said the school corporation has had to find ways to use or sell other properties it had closed last year. Silver Street Elementary School was sold to Sojourn Community Church and the Children’s Academy of New Albany was repurposed as the CANA Early Learning Center.
Kleehamer said leasing out the property gives the school corporation an opportunity to review how they could use the building and still serve students in the county.
“I just want to give the school corporation time to evaluate what that building could be used for, and that was the intention of the school board before someone else could come in and lease it for a dollar,” Kleehamer said. “Let us have first crack at it, let us do it first.”
Snyder said a few ideas have been tossed around with other uses for the building, but nothing has been nailed down. He said the corporation is looking at using the building for some of the programs in other schools, but they’re also waiting for the corporation to become more “financially healthy.”
“We haven’t really pushed that conversation very far yet,” Snyder said. “We thought we had more time, but with this law pushing us along, it’s clear we need to get busy. We need to accelerate the planning timeline.”
He said the building could also be used for a public/private partnership with other organizations for an early learning center, similar to what they have at CANA.
But he said he’s still not sure how long it’s going to take to figure that part out. He said whether the corporation repurposes the building or sells it, he’s not sure everything can be solved before the first term for the lease is served out.
“Real estate is very fickle,” Snyder said. “Sometimes, it takes a long time to find the right occupant and right use, then sometimes they just find you.”