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Many unknowns ahead in charter school's quest to own Clay High

Save Clay spokesman Pete Agostino announces at a press conference Wednesday in front of Clay High School that the Ch
Jeff Parrott/WVPE
Save Clay spokesman Pete Agostino announces at a press conference Wednesday in front of Clay High School that businessman Larry Garatoni's Career Academy network wants to buy the school when it closes at the end of this school year.

Now that the Career Academy network has announced its plans to buy the former Clay High, the real work begins for the growing charter school group.

Larry Garatoni, the businessman and South Bend charter schools co-founder, is under no illusion: He knows buying the Clay High School building after it closes won’t be quick and easy.

Garatoni and his supporters announced the plans Wednesday at a press conference in front of the school.

Garatoni said he does not expect the South Bend Community School Corporation to be a willing seller, but state law requires them to sell vacant buildings to interested charter schools.

“South Bend in the past has fought us when we’ve tried to get their schools so I suspect this thing is going to go back and forth, and might take six months or a year to get this thing settled,” he said. “There’s just a process that’s been outlined in state statutes and every party has a right to speak. There’s certain time periods for people to respond, and so unfortunately it’s going to drag out.”

One major hurdle could be the purchase price. Indiana’s so-called Dollar Law requires public schools to sell unused buildings to interested charter schools for just a dollar, if the charter school expresses interest within 60 days. In the past, the corporation has started that 60-day clock with the school board’s vote to close the school. In Clay High’s case, that was in April, meaning that window has closed.

But Garatoni’s group, represented by attorney Pete Agostino, thinks the 60-day clock should start when the federal court approves Clay High’s closure. The judge, in the corporation’s decades-old desegregation court order, has ordered the corporation to file its plan to close the school by December 20. The closure cannot change the racial makeup of the district’s other three high schools so that they no longer comply with the order.

Garatoni said his Career Academy network last week sent the corporation a certified letter informing them of their intent to enter into a lease-purchase agreement after the school closes at the end of this school year. He said his superintendent, Jeremy Lugbill, also called and spoke with someone there about it.

He said the corporation has not replied yet. South Bend schools officials also didn’t immediately return WVPE’s interview request for this story.

Garatoni has had a contentious relationship with the corporation at times, as his schools have grown and South Bend school enrollments have continued to decline.

In 2021 Career Academy tried but failed to obtain the former Tarkington school. Last year Garatoni filed a complaint against the corporation with the Indiana Attorney General, alleging that it wasn’t using the former Brown Intermediate School and Hamilton Traditional School buildings, according to The South Bend Tribune.

He said he’s often wrongly blamed for the corporation’s declining enrollment. Of the 22,000 students living in the district, 8,300 are enrolled outside the corporation, whether it be charters, private schools or neighboring public school districts.

“People like to blame us for taking South Bend school kids but actually we take a small proportion of them,” he said. “8,300 go, go, so… and I suspect this year it’s even worse because I understand South Bend schools have lost more students.”

The Save Clay group incorporated almost immediately after the school board voted to close the school in April. It’s tried to explore its remedies under state law, including petitioning the state to let the school separate into its own district. Most recently the group tried unsuccessfully to intervene in the corporation’s federal desegregation case.

Republican County Council Member Amy Drake thanked Garatoni for getting involved.

“The Success Academies treat each child as an individual person and offer them all kinds of opportunities for success,” Drake said. “The Clay families here came to me very upset when they heard that there was going to be a hole in their community. I think this is going to offer these kids things that they would never get at South Bend schools, and I am just so overjoyed to be here, so happy to be with all these people that have made this happen. Just a great day for Clay Township.”

Save Clay spokesman Pete Agostino said when Garatoni and the Career Academy network expressed interest, buying the school seemed like the best option.

"Charter schools are public schools," Agostino said. "Clay High School's doors will reopen as a new public school, paid for by public funds and operated by a board which is truly interested in the success of its students and the success of this whole community."

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).