Proposed charter school, CCS at odds over availability of Orchard Park campus


Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its original version with information about how CCS is using the former Orchard Park building and comments from Supt. Michael Beresford. 

A new charter school with ties to Hillsdale College, a small conservative Christian liberal arts college, is aiming to open for the 2023-24 school year in the building that most recently housed Orchard Park Elementary, potentially disrupting a partnership between Carmel Clay Schools and Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation to convert the former campus into a new park.

According to state law, public school districts must make vacant school buildings available to charter schools to purchase or lease for $1 before selling or disposing of the building. The law states that districts must alert the Indiana Dept. of Education of plans to vacate a building within 10 days of the decision being made.

The CCS school board voted on June 25, 2018, to close Orchard Park at the conclusion of the 2020-21 school year. CCS, however, hasn’t notified IDOE of a pending vacancy because it is still using the building for meeting space, professional development, staging and safety drills.

Meanwhile, the CCS school board approved a resolution in June 2021 outlining its intentions to lease the site to CCPR to develop a new park. The school board vote occurred less than a week before a change in state law that would require school districts to receive confirmation from the Indiana attorney general that the district has complied with laws requiring vacant school buildings to be offered to charter schools before they can approve resolutions to sell, exchange, lease, demolish, hold without operation or dispose of a school building.

Organizers of Valor Classical Academy, the charter school seeking to open in the Orchard Park site, believe CCS is out of compliance with the law and that state law gives them the right to apply to use the site. Matt Wolf, a Valor founding board member, said the matter may need to be decided in court.

CCS Supt. Michael Beresford, however, said the district has followed state law.

“Carmel Clay Schools has confirmation from the Indiana Attorney General’s office that we are fully compliant with the law regarding the use of the building,” Beresford said. “We sought clarity from state officials last year about necessary notifications. We did not have to formally notify the state pursuant to the ‘dollar law’ because we continue to use the building.”

CCPR Director Michel Klitzing said that CCPR is continuing discussions with CCS regarding the future use of Orchard Park and that no plans have been finalized.

Holly Wilson, Valor founding board president, said Orchard Park is the charter school’s top choice because of the low cost to obtain it and its proximity to families interested in the school.

“It was the first (site) that came to mind because of the location and the centrality of it,” she said.

Wilson said Valor officials are looking at other sites in Hamilton County, including one in Westfield, in case they are unable to open in Orchard Park.

As a mother of several children in Noblesville schools, Wilson became disappointed several years ago with what she saw as a lack of civics education in the curriculum. Initially, she thought her only other option was to homeschool, which wasn’t feasible for her family.

But soon she came to learn more about charter schools, which offer a tuition-free public education in a setting exempt from some state and school district regulations, giving them more autonomy than traditional public schools. They are held accountable by the organization – such as a governing body or Indiana Charter School Board – that authorizes them.

As Wilson, whose children now attend private school, learned more about charter schools, she decided to work with Wolf, who co-founded Seven Oaks Classical School in 2016 near Bloomington, to open one in Hamilton County. Wolf commuted to Hamilton County frequently for work and realized it would likely be a good fit for a charter school of its own.

Wilson also saw increased interest in bringing a new charter school to Hamilton County.

“There seems to be more parents saying, ‘We’d like to see more of that kind of education,’’ she said.

Valor Classical Academy got a boost when Hillsdale College agreed to accept it as part of its Barney Charter School Initiative, meaning Hillsdale – which also partners with Seven Oaks – will provide free curriculum and other non-financial support. Wolf said Valor has contacted the Grace School Charter Authority, which is affiliated with Grace College in Winona Lake, to be its authorizer.

Hillsdale, a small Christian liberal arts college in Michigan, has been growing its network of charter schools in recent years through the Barney Charter School Initiatives. BCSI schools serve more than 14,500 K-12 students in the U.S. with more than 8,000 on a waitlist. According to its website, the BCSI model “offers a firm grounding in civic virtue, and cultivates moral character.” It has faced criticism, however, for some of its views, such as its mission statement that states that the college won’t be “succumbing to the dehumanizing, discriminatory trend of so-called ‘social justice’ and ‘multicultural diversity.’”

Valor Classical Academy plans to serve 350 students in kindergarten through sixth grade when it opens and then expand through high school in subsequent years. Enrollment is expected to begin in early 2023 for the school’s first class.

Valor’s five-member board is comprised of Wilson, a real estate agent and founding board president; Wolf, an IT manager and founding board secretary; Tara Nichols, a classical school educator and founding board treasurer; Karen Reynolds, a retired educator; and Beth Glynn, a CPA.

Wilson said Valor is not affiliated with Moms for Liberty of Hamilton County, which has expressed support for opening a new school locally, or any other local organization. However, she said she’s made connections with county residents with similar desires to expand educational offerings locally and that she’s encountered support for the idea.

“I think there’s room for more than our one school,” she said. “We anticipate being filled pretty quickly.”

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