by Thomas P. Healy
Last year’s vote by the Indianapolis Public Schools Board of Commissioners to accept the IPS administration’s recommendation to “reinvent” the number and location of its high schools resulted in the shuttering of Broad Ripple High School, 1115 Broad Ripple Ave.
Today, the back-to-school season is under way throughout the city, with all the attendant vibrancy and drama. By contrast, the 16-acre campus across the street from the White River oxbow seems deserted.
The disposition of the site, a dominant architectural and cultural feature of the Village landscape since it was first established in 1886, is now in the hands of IPS administrators. In a recent conference call, IPS superintendent Lewis Ferebee and special projects director Joe Gramelspacher pledged an open and thorough process of due diligence prior to making any recommendations to the school board. “We have to be a good steward of that 16 acres,” Gramelspacher said.
As part of that stewardship, Ferebee said further study is necessary. “As we’ve done with many other properties, a market analysis is part of our process. It will help us collect and evaluate uses and reuses for the Broad Ripple facility,” he said. In addition to considering uses for the parcel itself, IPS will also consider uses and proposals for surrounding properties. “We’ll determine what the best use is and also ensure we’re in line with economic development goals of the area,” he said.
The analysis will take two tracks: one looking at residential, commercial, retail, and/or professional office space; the other looking for potential nonprofit tenant(s), such as government, civic, and arts organizations as well as schools. “We are thinking about professional and non-commercial uses,” Gramelspacher said. He said the private market analysis and nonprofit analysis should both be complete by year’s end and will conclude with a presentation of those findings to the community (see chart). “That analysis will not identify the final disposition of the property,” he stressed. The next step will be to determine who could capitalize on those opportunities.
Ferebee said additional community input is warranted despite numerous public hearings during the past year hosted by IPS, Broad Ripple Village Association (BRVA), and Rep. Ed DeLaney, whose House District 86 includes Broad Ripple. “Those discussions were leading up to the board decision to honor the administration’s recommendations on which schools operate as a high school and which schools would not,” Ferebee said. “We have not had a deep discussion on Broad Ripple’s future. At the time of those meetings I communicated and stood by the principle of not having that conversation at that time in order to respect and honor the school year for those students and staff members impacted by the closures.”
Since the school’s closing, the administration has begun to consider possibilities like splitting the parcel into two pieces. “I could easily see the building used for education or nonprofit uses and could see mixed use of residential or retail in the other portion,” Ferebee said.
“There are endless possibilities on 16 acres in the heart of this arts and cultural district,” Gramelspacher said. “With over 375,000 square feet of space, it’s important to gain an understanding of what the possibilities are.” Now that the building is vacant, he said it will be easier to undertake an assessment of what usable space is available to match the needs of prospective tenants and whether it could be retrofitted to meet their requirements. “It may involve demolition,” Gramelspacher said.
BRVA board member Kent Springer is not only a BRHS graduate but also the volunteer board’s lead on reuse of the high school building and grounds. “I’ve been working on it every other day for the past several months and it’s extremely frustrating,” he said recently.
The BRVA’s involvement goes back to 2016, when Springer and the executive director at the time, Brooke Klejnot, met with school board member Kelly Bentley, herself a BRHS alumna. “She gave us the dismal numbers for Broad Ripple,” Springer said, “and told us that IPS was forming a task force to look at which high schools to close, and that Broad Ripple was a likely choice.” Springer said that information led to a lively discussion within the BRVA board. “It was a conundrum. Our community fights for the school but nobody in our neighborhood sends their kids there.”
ADDITIONAL COVERAGE: Broad Ripple High School Facing Closure
Things got hectic in June 2017, when IPS released its “Reinventing IPS High Schools” report.[PDF] Broad Ripple Magnet High School for the Arts and Humanities was one of the facilities IPS identified as being suitable to sell or lease. During the three-month period between the release of the report and the school board vote, Springer and District 2 City-County Councillor Colleen Fanning met with IPS. “They had a very aggressive timeline and asked us to be their community partner in dealing with the sale of BRHS,” Springer recalled.
“We pretty much agreed at that point we wouldn’t fight them on closing the high school because we were going to be an engaged partner. They wanted to launch a Request for Qualifications process right after the announcement of the closing and put it on the market in late fall,” Springer said. “They wanted Brooke, Colleen, and me to serve on the bid review committee in January–February of 2018 and then go to the school board in February–March for a vote.” Springer said the timeline looked promising. “There was the potential of a new owner of the building by the time school was out.”
His recollections are shared by Fanning. “Early in the summer of 2017 I was made aware informally by IPS that Broad Ripple was one of the schools they were looking at closing,” she said in a recent interview. “I expressed concern on behalf of my constituents.” While acknowledging that the City-County Council has no formal role to play in IPS’s decision, she felt an obligation to help her constituents understand the process and to convey her constituents’ feelings to IPS.
Last summer Fanning met with David Rosenberg, who at the time was the IPS chief of operations. “He laid out an extremely aggressive time frame for disposal of the entire parcel,” she said.
“I was thrilled on a number of levels,” she recalled. “Not only was IPS concerned about the community having a voice in the process but also was responsive to our concern for potential vacant property in the heart of Broad Ripple and how that could impact property values and public safety.”
Fanning said that at that meeting, IPS tasked BRVA with soliciting community input, and the group wasted no time in getting to work. “We got a robust response in the form of a formalized survey and a couple of public meetings,” she said. “The community said with a loud and very clear voice that Broad Ripple needs a high school.”
She was encouraged that BRVA representatives were going to be at the table with IPS during the bid selection process, “so the community would have a formal voice on which bid was selected,” she said.
Like Springer, Fanning said the process was to culminate with a presentation to the IPS board in February, well ahead of the end of the school year, with a tenant selected in spring “so there would be no significant vacancy.”
ADDITIONAL COVERAGE: (Almost) For Sale
Klejnot left the BRVA early in 2018; at the end of April, Fanning was hired as her replacement. “Many months went by without action. Turns out IPS was not recognizing the time frame they talked about and BRHS was no longer a priority,” Fanning said. Instead, IPS told her it wanted to focus on the upcoming tax referendum and the new structure of high schools. “We were essentially told that BRHS was not a priority until they got through the referendum,” she said.
“Time came and went, so now we have a vacant parcel in the middle of Broad Ripple,” she said. “IPS said it will be at least a year before there’s any significant movement at all, but based on my experience with IPS, I think this parcel will be vacant or underutilized for the foreseeable future.”
DEAL OR NO DEAL
During the past year’s outreach, BRVA learned that community members looked favorably on two IPS Innovation Network partners, Purdue Polytechnic High School and Indianapolis Classical Schools. “There was lots of discussion with Purdue and Indianapolis Classical Schools about how they could potentially fit into that building or in the 16-acre parcel,” Fanning said.
Purdue Polytechnic High School, which emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula, began accepting its first students in fall 2017. Scott Bess, head of school at Purdue University’s Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis, said that the initial success encouraged Purdue to seriously consider expanding.
“We’ve received approval from the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation [OEI] to open a second charter school in 2019,” Bess said in a recent phone interview. “We have a principal selected, Keeanna Warren, and she’s in the second year of a Mind Trust Fellowship.”
The Mind Trust is a nonprofit organization formed in 2006 to support development of charter schools in Indianapolis. According to CEO Brandon Brown, “The Innovation School Fellowship is our partnership with IPS and the Mayor’s OEI to launch new Innovation Network Schools.” The fellowship program provides educators with not only salary and benefits but also training and resources to help them design and launch their new school. “The Charter School Fellowship provides the crucial planning time and support needed to grow new high-quality schools in Indianapolis,” he said.
Bess said IPS approached Purdue last year and asked if there was any interest in one of the schools under consideration for closure. Since Purdue already had an eastside location, John Marshall wasn’t of interest, he said. “We were looking for a location that gives us geographic balance and certainly Broad Ripple and Northwest are two areas we were most interested in because we could attract students not only from Center Township but also from surrounding townships.”
Bess said that the initial high-level conceptual discussion with IPS officials last year culminated in a memo outlining Purdue’s interest. Two scenarios were shared with IPS:
Scenario 1: A 100-year lease with annual lease payments of $600,000.
Scenario 2: A 100-year lease with an upfront payment in full of $6 million to $8 million.
“If we entered into a long-term lease, we could give IPS an upfront payment of $6 million to $8 million, which was the open market value at the time,” Bess said. “Or, if IPS wanted yearly payments, maybe this could last a much longer time, and IPS winds up getting $10 million to $15 million over time.”
When word leaked out this summer, these scenarios were characterized in media reports as “offers” that IPS “rejected.” On June 15, IPS spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black emailed a statement to this magazine that read in part: “We undergo a very public process for the disposition/reuse of any IPS property and we are not ready to review any proposals yet. As we most recently did with the sale of the SCIPS property, we will engage with community stakeholders, issue a Request for Proposals, receive all bids and carefully consider each one before making a decision.”
Indianapolis Classical Schools was included in media speculation about a possible third campus for ICS at Broad Ripple. ICS president Janet McNeal issued a June 19 statement that read in part: “We want to emphasize that Indianapolis Classical Schools did not take part in a formal proposal involving Broad Ripple High School.”
Purdue’s Bess adds, “That’s absolutely true. There was never a formal offer made. It’s also absolutely true that a concept was floated and reaction from the IPS board was, ‘We’re not interested in entertaining discussions around that.’”
On August 1, the Mind Trust announced that Carroll Bilbrey, the social studies department chair for Indianapolis Classical Schools, had been awarded a 2-year Mind Trust Fellowship to develop a third campus for ICS. McNeal responded to questions with a statement that reads in part: “We are partnering with the Charter School Growth Fund and have every intention of opening a third school. Carroll Bilbrey’s fellowship through The Mind Trust will be directed toward that goal. ICS will spend the last quarter of this year deciding where and what type of school will best meet our goals and our mission.”
She reiterated, “As yet, Indianapolis Classical Schools has not taken part in a formal proposal involving Broad Ripple High School.” Her focus, she said, was the opening of ICS’s second campus at Riverside High School.
During the Envision Broad Ripple community planning process a decade ago that culminated in an updated neighborhood plan to guide development, participants saw the high school as an anchor institution and didn’t include it in any planning. They never anticipated it would go away, and with good reason. In 2005, there were 1,525 students enrolled and the facility was in the midst of a $19 million construction project that upgraded the HVAC system, added new science labs, made all six of the building’s main levels meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, completely renovated restrooms and upgraded the Industrial Technology building. As home for the Center for Performing and Visual Arts, the school auditorium received extensive treatment to improve acoustics, increase the orchestra pit, and replace a worn-out stage floor.
Similarly, the establishment of the North Midtown Tax Allocation Area (aka Midtown TIF) in 2013 did not include the 16-acre parcel, which is listed as “exempt.” Nevertheless, the parcel is included within the Economic Development Area boundary established in 2012 as a precursor to creation of the allocation area. That means any changes to the parcel to allow for commercial development might change its relationship to the Midtown TIF.
Any zoning changes would require a lengthy public hearing process to receive approval by the Metropolitan Development Commission and the City-County Council, and that process could pose significant issues for redevelopment of the high school property. Colleen Fanning said a bigger challenge is rezoning for any non-scholastic use on the parcel. “There is community disdain for additional apartments, and questions about the facility itself,” she said. While many developers have expressed interest in the site to her, “Developers are wary of taking something like this on if the community is not supportive. There’s a lot of interest in the development community, but everyone I’ve spoken with—a dozen or so—are extremely wary and respectful of the community input that’s got to take place as part of rezoning process.
“You’re not going to get a lot of developers who are going to take on the BRVA. We’re a strong community and—at least on this issue—speak with a unified voice. As the district’s city-county councilor, I can tell you, a development proposal that goes against the community’s wishes won’t move forward.” A BRVA-sponsored online petition asking IPS to negotiate with Herron and Purdue has more than 1600 signatures.
Fanning said the Broad Ripple community wants to work with IPS for a win-win. “There are lots of creative ways to do that—split up the parcel, selective demolition to retain auditorium and gymnasium for future use—we’re extremely open-minded to solutions but we’re running out of time.”
“Once you’ve closed a high school, it’s hard to get another one,” Fanning said. She’s pleased that Broad Ripple continues to see investment in urban infill development, transit, and greenspace that fulfills the Envision Broad Ripple plan. It’s also why the Broad Ripple High School parcel is so important. “You can’t take away a high school and add a bunch of density in its place and expect to improve the character and vitality of the neighborhood,” she said. “You have to be more thoughtful about density and add it around anchor institutions so it creates a community in which people want to live.
“Broad Ripple has been an economic strength in the landscape of Indy and an important part of the success of Midtown,” she said. “But it has always struggled with population flight. We don’t have families that move to Broad Ripple with the intention of staying because they feel they don’t have good high school options.”
Midtown Indy partnered with BRVA in leading the Envision Broad Ripple process. Executive director Michael McKillip calls the 16-acre property one of the most important real estate parcels in all of Midtown. “The number one reason people choose to leave Midtown is the real or perceived lack of educational choice,” he said. “If you have the opportunity to use the building to support educational choice and to further educational choice in Midtown and in Broad Ripple, that’s great,” he added.
“The outcome of that parcel can have a catalytic or detrimental effect on all of Midtown,” he said. “So we have to get it right.”
The pressure is on IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and his team. Ferebee said they understand the challenges ahead. “We have 30,000 students and facilities for 100,000. That means we have facilities that are no longer needed,” he said. “We have to right-size our real estate portfolio.”
He’s also facing a different kind of pressure. Ferebee acknowledged receipt of a letter dated August 7 [PDF] and signed by nine state legislators, expressing concern about the current due diligence process for Broad Ripple High School.
The letter states: “In July 2017, you provided a timeline toward a final recommendation for the building’s reuse by February 2018. However, last week you announced yet another delay, meaning it could take years to determine the fate of this highly visible and venerable property.”
The letter references the Purdue Polytechnic High School reuse scenarios. “This is a unique opportunity to capitalize on an immediate revenue opportunity. [… W]e ask that you immediately act to finalize a deal with Purdue Polytechnic that adds another great option to IPS.”
The nine signatories to the letter include Speaker of the House Brian Bosma and state Senator John Ruckelshaus, whose District 30 includes the Broad Ripple property.
“The community clearly wants an education component as part of the Broad Ripple High School,” Ruckelshaus said by phone. “Purdue Polytechnic would be an option everybody seems to have agreement on as being the educational institution to go in there.” He said the coalition of legislators wrote the letter to encourage IPS to “take a hard look” at Purdue. “It’s serious money that they’re offering and they’re very serious about it. We think it’s a win-win-win for the community,” he said.
In June, Ruckelshaus and State Rep. Ed DeLaney issued a joint statement regarding the former Broad Ripple High School building: “We believe Indianapolis Public Schools should participate in good-faith negotiations with Purdue Polytechnic and others regarding the potential leasing of the former Broad Ripple High School building. Many in the community feel that a school should continue to be an anchor tenant of the property. While Broad Ripple could benefit from other developments on the school property, our first preference would be for the historic building to once again be used to educate local children.”
However, DeLaney did not sign the August 7 letter from nine legislators. “I refused to sign it because of the first paragraph in the letter,” he said in a recent interview. “I told them I will sign this if you take off the first paragraph, which I believe constitutes false praise of IPS leadership and also false self-praise of legislators.” Delaney added, “I completely and totally agree with the conclusion of the letter.”
IPS issued the following statement in response to the letter:
“Indianapolis Public Schools appreciates the interest of some legislators in the future of the Broad Ripple High School campus. We also recognize the expression of interest from Purdue Polytechnic High School to occupy the Broad Ripple facility for what they have described as market value. IPS has continued to communicate to stakeholders and Midtown residents that we are committed to due diligence and responsible reuse, redevelopment, or disposition of Broad Ripple High School.
“Most recently, staff reiterated and outlined a transparent process endorsed by the Board of School Commissioners that includes community engagement, market analysis and an open process to consider all potential proposals. We believe our constituents would not want us to circumvent a public process and bypass due diligence. We will continue to move with urgency recognizing our commitment to maximize resources for student needs and minimize burdens on taxpayers.”
A version of this article appears in the August/September 2018 print edition of the magazine.