Chelsea Schneider Kirk and Christin Nance Lazerus, Post-Tribune Staff Writers
The windows to Beckman Middle School are boarded and the grass has turned into weeds, but Taiwane Payne sees potential for the school that the Gary Community School Corp. closed and is now selling.
Payne came to an open house at the shuttered school on Thursday eager to see if it would be an ideal building for his not-for-profit venture. Payne wants to revitalize a Gary school into a technical center that would teach the unemployed green technology.
But that's as long as the price is right.
"It's up to the city of Gary and the school corporation not to try to get as much money out of them as possible," Payne said. "It would be great to see the building being used and not abandoned."
From the outside, Payne surmised Beckman, which closed in 2004, would need some work.
"I need to get in and find out exactly what needs to be done," Payne said pulling on his work gloves and carrying an industrial flashlight.
Gary Community Schools is in the process of selling 11 of its vacant school buildings, but Gov. Mitch Daniels thinks some of the structures should be given to charter schools.
At a recent charter schools conference, Daniels said he'd like to see school corporations partner with charter schools to make facilities available that are no longer in use.
"If any school district in this state is sitting on perfectly useful school buildings that it isn't using and doesn't have any prospect of needing, people say, 'Well, they should have to sell them. They refuse to sell them; they should have to sell them'," Daniels said. "Sell them? Hell, they should give them away. The public already paid for them once."
Daniels cited the Gary Community School Corp. as an example in his remarks. When he visited KIPP LEAD Charter School in April, Daniels noticed the Gary charter school had to move a meeting to a nearby bakery because the school didn't have a room large enough to accommodate the group.
The district has 22 schools that closed over the past several years as Gary faces declining enrollment and a budget squeeze. The district does plan to renovate at least two of the buildings -- Dunbar Pulaski Middle School and Locke Elementary -- for its new central office and the new home for McCullough Academy for Girls, respectively.
Not so fast
Gary School Board President Kenneth Stalling said he understands the criticism that the board isn't moving fast enough to sell the buildings, but he emphasizes the buildings are far from move-in ready.
"Some of these schools, the property is more valuable than the buildings sitting there," Stalling said. "We can't stop the legislature from passing a law, but when you come in and tell us to just give them away, that doesn't make sense."
Gary's KIPP LEAD Charter School has discussed the possible purchase of one of the district's buildings for several years, and KIPP plans to submit a bid on one of the buildings for sale by Monday, said KIPP Chicago-Gary Schools Executive Director April Goble.
"We've been in conversations with the district, and they spent some time developing the process to sell the buildings," Goble said. "We went through several buildings yesterday and we're trying to find which one suits our needs best."
Indiana charter schools have faced challenges in gaining access to unused facilities, according to Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association. But the Gary Community School Corp. seems to have revamped its process to advertise unused buildings, Simnick said.
"In the past, Thea Bowman made several attempts to land buildings and quite frankly they were nonresponsive," Simnick said.
Simnick would support legislation that would make unused public schools available to charters.
"If it's paid for by tax dollars and they no longer need it, it should be made available to other public schools," he said.
State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, supported a bill a few years ago that would have prohibited a school corporation from making a covenant stating unneeded property could not be sold.
"It's a discussion that needs to take place," Rogers said. "When the governor expresses that this is taxpayers' property and that taxpayers should not be made to pay a second time for the property, I think there is merit to that argument."
State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said public schools don't normally give away property to other districts.
"So why would they give it to charters?" Smith said. "I do agree that we need to give charters a chance to purchase vacant properties. But I don't think we should come in and treat charter schools better than other districts."
Smith said legislation on this issue could get a hearing next spring if Republicans take back the House.