Hollow Halls: As classes begin across the city this fall, the corridors of Broad Ripple High School will be silent for the first time in more than a century. And hope for a quick redevelopment has been suspended.
One evening last May, Broad Ripple High School overflowed with students and alumni for an after-school get-together. While the classrooms echoed with laughter and conversation, the occasion wasn’t exactly festive. It was billed as a Farewell Open House—the last chance to visit a 132-year-old neighborhood fixture before Indianapolis Public Schools closed it for good at the end of the academic year.
Guests filled the hallways. In the cafeteria, alumni pored over old yearbooks or pointed out the tables where they used to eat lunch. Nearby, a man in his 50s lingered at the bathroom entrance. “I’m going to go in there and smoke one, for old time’s sake,” he said.
The balance of the crowd was black or brown—products of the school’s post-integration era. There was also a smattering of folks from the ’50s and early ’60s who might have had talk-show host David Letterman, architect Michael Graves, or former mayor Stephen Goldsmith as classmates. They all lined up in the lobby to purchase “Straight Outta Broad Ripple” T-shirts.
The sprawling complex certainly deserved a big sendoff. Over the years, it has become as much a part of the neighborhood as the nearby White River. But padlocking the place, though painful, was the easy part. In its final year, the school hosted just 25 percent of the number of students it was designed to accommodate, and IPS needed to eliminate its multi-million–dollar deficit. The hard part will be deciding what comes next. The school system wants to sell the place to the highest bidder and walk away—a district report estimates it could be worth as much as $8 million to a developer. But a couple of charter schools and a large swath of BRHS’s neighbors want to keep it as an academic facility. Which, thanks to a law few in the public knew existed until recently, theoretically could force IPS to sell the place for $1.
In a showdown worthy of an AP-level debate class, the two sides seem unable to find common ground. Given a few factors that neither anticipated when this saga began, the building may remain empty for quite a while.
When Broad Ripple High School opened in 1886, it mustered just seven students in its first freshman class. This was back when Broad Ripple really was a village—a rustic river community where well-heeled Indianapolis residents spent their summers. Not surprisingly, the school remained small for several decades. In 1923, however, BRHS was annexed by the Indianapolis Public Schools system, kick-starting exponential growth. Shortly after World War II, enrollment was at almost 1,500 students—nearly all of them white. BRHS didn’t start integrating until 1965, when Shortridge High School transferred some of its African-American students there. By 1986, BRHS’s 100th anniversary, black students comprised 65 percent of the student body.
The centennial wasn’t the happiest of occasions. Suburban flight had already begun to pinch funding and drain away students. In the early 1980s, IPS schools started closing, and BRHS was threatened with the ax twice during that period. It escaped closure both times, but as the decades passed, keeping the place open became tougher to justify. By the time the district announced last fall that the school’s 2017–2018 class would be its last, BRHS, which could accommodate 2,400 students, hosted less than 600.
Not that the place wasn’t still valuable. Indeed, given its 16 acres in the heart of Broad Ripple, it’s one of the most desirable pieces of land in IPS’s portfolio. According to Abbe Hohmann, president of Site Strategies Advisory LLC (who has represented IPS since 2014 in its efforts to dispose of surplus property), her phone started ringing shortly after BRHS’s closure was announced, and hasn’t stopped. The only IPS building sitting on land that coveted was the 11-acre Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass Ave, which sold for $12 million in 2016.
“They’re both in high-profile cultural districts, and they’re both large urban parcels,” Hohmann says. “I’ve received continuous inquiries, even though there’s no decision yet on what the school board plans to do.”
IPS certainly needs all the cash it can get. Its $45 million budget shortfall this year amounts to one of its largest yet. To address that deficit, the system introduced a referendum for a property tax increase that would provide an additional $725 million over the next eight years. Originally, the plan called for $1 billion, and was to be voted on last May. But the outcry over the size of the package saw it reduced to the current figure, and the vote moved to November.
Closing three high schools this year (including BRHS) was, among other things, IPS’s way of showing it was serious about maximizing taxpayer dollars. IPS superintendent Lewis Ferebee had hoped to move fast on the Broad Ripple sale. But when the story about the downsizing broke, opposition to the district’s plan emerged immediately. The most high-profile attention came from the folks behind downtown’s Purdue Polytechnic High School, which needed a location for a second high school to serve the Indianapolis north side. “We wanted to get some geographic diversity,” says Scott Bess, head of Purdue Polytechnic. “When we heard Broad Ripple was going to close, we thought that could be of interest.”
Several months later, a foundation called HIM By HER, run by a local detective, made its own pitch for a charter school in the building. While the Indianapolis Charter School Board vote on that application was ultimately postponed, it further complicated what once looked like a quick redevelopment and desperately needed windfall for IPS.
To be fair, the law is on the side of the charter schools. State regulations mandate that school corporations must inform the Indiana Department of Education whenever a building formerly used for classroom instruction is closing. If a charter school wants to use a building on IDOE’s list, the school system in charge of it must either lease it for $1 per year, or sell it outright to the charter for $1.
The law, on the books since 2011, has helped charters take over former IPS elementary schools. For instance, Tindley Summit Academy recently took possession of the old IPS School 98. None of those buildings, however, could have gone for seven or eight figures on the open market. The Coke plant sale didn’t attract any controversy because it was never used as a teaching facility. The charter law didn’t apply.
Although few stakeholders will talk about it on the record, some privately express the belief that IPS will now wait until well after the referendum to get serious about trying to sell the Broad Ripple campus. Ferebee seems determined to avoid relinquishing it for $1. At press time, IPS refused to comment about the issue because they wanted to “give the students and teachers the opportunity to be able to finish this final year without any unnecessary distractions about what’s going to happen to the building,” according to IPS media relations coordinator Carrie Cline Black. But in May, Ferebee told several media outlets he would speak with legislators during the 2019 General Assembly about changing the law—all but guaranteeing the building’s vacancy for a couple of years.
While no one knows how this will work out, a third option does exist: a facility that accommodates both charter schools and development. Purdue Polytechnic’s new location, for example, would eventually ramp up to a student body of 600. That initially made using BRHS somewhat problematic, because it would have left the program rattling around in a gigantic, mostly empty structure. Early on, Purdue had some preliminary discussions with IPS about accommodating both Purdue and an institution run by Indianapolis Classical Schools (responsible for the popular Herron High School and Riverside High School). Under this scenario, IPS could retain control of the building, collect rent from its two tenants, and use the first floor as rental space.
Not surprisingly, this concept excited many area residents. The Broad Ripple Village Association conducted an online survey about the future of the BRHS campus, and reports that more than 85 percent of the 574 respondents advocated some sort of community-focused reuse. Residential and commercial redevelopment received far less support (9.4 and 4.5 percent, respectively.)
What’s more, a Purdue/Herron mashup would be the kind of institution that could change the character of a neighborhood served in recent years by failing schools. “I’ve lived in Broad Ripple all of my life, and I can’t tell you how many people have moved away because of the schools,” says Colleen Fanning, BRVA executive director and a city councilor. “This would be the first time in my lifetime where people would move to Broad Ripple for the schools. It would be a game-changer overnight.”
But such a reuse plan won’t happen quickly. A lot of things would have to go right before the Herron/Purdue dream team could come to pass, not the least of which would be determining whether the BRHS campus can accommodate Purdue’s ideas about what a 21st-century school should look like. “Our ideal building probably looks more like a tech startup’s headquarters than it does a traditional school, which obviously Broad Ripple is,” says Bess, the Purdue Polytechnic official. “Could it be modified? If we start taking down walls, will the second floor come crashing down?”
The heating and cooling tabs for BRHS are also substantial, and the specter of major maintenance issues lurks in the background. Not to mention the huge difference in urgency for Purdue and Herron. Purdue has already applied to the mayor’s office for a second charter, and needs to find a location by late summer, says Bess. “There is a timetable, and it may be that with all the variables involved we look at it and say, ‘This just doesn’t work,’” he says. “Or maybe everybody comes together and says, ‘Let’s make it work.’ I couldn’t even hazard a guess right now as to which it might be.”
Herron, on the other hand, hasn’t even applied to open a third location. It’s currently preoccupied with its new Riverside High School, which opened last fall and is moving into the former Heslar Naval Armory for its second year. “For now, we at Indianapolis Classical Schools are focusing on Riverside,” says ICS president Janet McNeal. “We’re interested in serving more Indianapolis students and their families, but for now, we are laser-focused on our new school.”
The machinations surrounding BRHS’s future stayed fairly low key until a few weeks ago, when details of the potential Purdue/Herron plan were spilled in an Indianapolis Star story. The piece intimated that a large cash offer made by the charter schools was rejected by IPS. For its part, IPS asserted that no formal proposal was ever made—a statement confirmed, sort of, by Bess.
“We had preliminary discussions with the superintendent and board chair about the financial terms that were contained in the Star article, but we got feedback that the majority of the board had no interest in talking any further about the deal,” he says. “That’s why there was no formal proposal.”
The options floated included giving IPS $600,000 in yearly rent, or an up-front payment of $6 to $8 million. At the very least, the optics of the situation—a cash-strapped school system rejecting an offer for millions—looked terrible for IPS. It also left it open to criticism that it wouldn’t willingly give up the building to a charter school for any price.
“They’re afraid of competition,” says one city official who asked to remain anonymous. “Everyone thinks it’s about the money, but it’s not. They don’t want a charter school cannibalizing their student base.”
About all that’s currently clear is that the BRHS saga could drag out for quite some time. For his part, Ferebee has batted around the idea of moving IPS’s administrative headquarters there, or perhaps relocating the Sidener Academy for High Ability Students. State representative Bob Behning says he has even heard a rumor that a couple of school board members advocate simply ignoring state law, selling the property, and seeing what happens. “I made it very clear to Dr. Ferebee that it would not be a wise move for the state’s largest school district to blatantly ignore state law,” Behning says. “He made it very clear to me that he had no intention of doing that. His last comment to me was, ‘I think we want to spend some more time trying to do due diligence on it.’”
While the BRVA’s dream scenario, turning BRHS into a charter-school duplex hosting both Purdue and Herron, seems to be off the table for the moment, so is simply selling to whichever developer offers IPS the most money.
Add the fact that this seismic community upheaval is happening in Broad Ripple, where you can’t put up an ice-cream stand without angering some faction of the residents, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble—or at the very least, a long-simmering dumpster fire.
In the meantime, the electronic sign in front of Broad Ripple High School that for years touted school plays and football games has gone dark. It could be a long time before the lights return to BRHS.