SOUTH BEND — The South Bend school corporation is nearing a deal with the city that could see the district move from its downtown headquarters by summer 2024.
During a board meeting Monday night, the district’s trustees voted 4-2 to transfer the corporation’s downtown headquarters to the city as early as next month and lease the space back until the district is ready to relocate.
The corporation’s current plan is to renovate and move its headquarters into the district’s Brown Community Learning Center at 737 W. Beale St. by or before July 2024.
The board approvals come following months of negotiations and will need approval from the city’s Board of Public Works to be finalized. It also comes as the district resumes its monthslong facilities planning process as administrators look to save money and “right size” the corporation amid recently imposed tax caps and years of declining enrollment.
The district’s facility planning task force — a group that opened its meetings to the public following inquiries from The Tribune last spring — will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Francis branch of the St. Joseph County Public Library system.
The task force meeting will focus on possible changes to elementary and middle schools and will be open to the public. The district is planning a broader set of community meetings next week. Details on those meetings are forthcoming, a corporation spokeswoman told The Tribune.
“Every dollar matters,” said Kareemah Fowler, the district’s assistant superintendent of business and finance. “We really need to be looking at, everything we do today, what does that do for us five, 10 years down the line? Right now, we’ll see some short-term savings, but this is really about the long game.”
What’s in the agreement?
The district intends to close an agreement for its downtown administration building by Oct. 4, according to the agreement approved Monday night. If, however, both the schools and city agree, that closing date can be extended to Nov. 1.
The city still intends to buy the district headquarters for $2.8 million, as announced earlier this year. The South Bend Common Council approved a $7.8 million appropriation request in March to support the city’s purchase and its desired renovations to the school headquarters at 215 Dr. Martin Luther Kind Jr. Blvd. City officials said at that time that they hoped to take control of the building this summer, renovate it in the fall and winter, and move from the County-City Building by 2023.
Those plans, however, were delayed after a local charter school attempted to block the move by exercising a state law that allows charter authorizers to buy or lease unused school buildings for $1.
Larry Garatoni, board president at Career and Success Academy, filed a complaint in December claiming that the school district didn’t properly list its Brown Community Learning Center for charter schools’ interest. After a lengthy review — the first of its kind in the state — the Indiana Attorney General’s office reversed an initial finding and sided with the district, clearing the way for renovations at Brown.
The corporation plans to put $2.3 million from the city’s administration building purchase toward converting the Brown building, a former middle school, into usable office space. The building is currently being used as a community center that offers space for tutoring programs and other student services, many of which are expected to stay.
South Bend schools has already made some improvements at the building using money from its 2020 referendum, Fowler said. The district will consider other, more extensive investments as a part of its broader facility plan. Fowler said she expects the corporation will finalize this plan in late November.
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The district’s lease agreement, if approved by the city, will allow the corporation to rent its space downtown through at least July 31, 2024, paying only for regular maintenance and utilities fees.
Fowler estimates the district’s operating costs at the building are more than $400,000 a year. After July 2024, if the district needs more time to move, the corporation has agreed to pay the city a delay fee of $300 a day through the end of 2024. If the district stays past 2024, the delay fee will increase to $500 a day.
While the district initially set a more aggressive timeline for its move, Fowler said the corporation sought an extended lease through summer 2024 to provide a cushion as the nation grapples with supply chain delays in the construction and technology industries.
“We’re hoping to be out much sooner than that, we just want to give ourselves enough time,” Fowler said. “It’s hard for us to gauge how long right now it takes to get things done. Most jobs have taken an average of 18 months.”
Getting ‘across the finish line’
Board members Oletha Jones and Jeanette McCullough voted against the transfer on Monday night and board secretary Stephanie Ball was absent from the district’s meeting.
Before her vote, McCullough asked whether administrators considered other moving to other locations more accessible to the South Bend community. The district did evaluate other buildings in the area and found Brownscored the highest in a feasibility study, Fowler said.
Board president John Anella applauded the decision as a means for finding profit from one of the district’s few assets untouched by the state’s $1 law, which applies to classroom buildings and not office space.
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“It’s just a better use of taxpayers’ funds,” Anella said. “Think of it this way: Is it cheaper to have two houses or one house? We’ll get rid of one of our houses and save some money.”
The building transfer and lease agreements now move to the city’s Board of Public Works which is expected to consider the contracts in a Sept. 27 meeting in anticipation of finalizing the deal in October.
“The city is excited to see this being finalized after placing the best offer,” South Bend Mayor James Mueller said in a provided statement. “This move will be a win for South Bend schools, the city, and the county, which will be able to backfill the space in the County-City Building. I am grateful for the leadership of the school board, school administration, and city team for working through all the details and getting this across the finish line.”