Gov. Mitch Daniels’ administration is closing Indiana’s state school for troubled or needy youth and will use it as home to a National Guard military academy for teens who have dropped out of high school.
Administration officials announced the fate of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s Home near Knightstown in eastern Indiana at a Statehouse news conference on Tuesday, five days before a high school graduation ceremony for 18 of the school’s 108 students on Saturday.
The home is to be closed after Saturday and converted into the military academy next year.
“There is a very long and proud history of the home but changes happen, and it’s time for a new chapter,” said State Health Commissioner Judy Monroe, whose agency oversees the home.
James Payne, director of Indiana’s Department of Child Services, said he did not consider the school to be closing but said rather its mission was changing.
Current students will be returned to their families, Payne said, with services available to transition them into communities.
But backers of the school rejected Payne’s claims that the school wasn’t really closing, and said Tuesday’s decision flew in the face of legislative intent displayed in the regular session that ended April 29.
Separate budget bills passed by the Democrat-led House and Republican-ruled Senate — and a final budget bill that did not pass by the regular session deadline — all included about $10 million to keep the school open for at least another year.
“Parents can’t always take care of their kids, for whatever reason that might be,” said a tearful Diana Blossingham, president of an alumni association for the home and school. “This home is a viable option for kids in Indiana. They are closing the home, they are closing our mission. There are 12-year-old kids there right now. They have no option.”
The alumni association has a lawsuit pending in Rush Circuit Court seeking an injunction to keep the school open at least until state lawmakers have another chance to address its future during a special legislative session. The overtime session is expected to be called in June in hopes of passing a new state budget.
During a hearing last week, Rush Circuit Judge David Northam did not throw out the lawsuit, but he did not issue an injunction to keep it open, either. He could rule this week.
Under the administration’s plan, about 175 people who work at the 53-building campus will be offered other jobs in state government.
The administration said in January that it planned to close the school this May, in part due to cost. The state was spending about $10 million a year on the facility, and said the campus needed repairs that could cost between $65 million and $200 million.
But supporters said the facility gives at-risk youths a loving, safe environment where they can flourish. Advocates say the home prevents some kids from falling through the cracks and provides structure and guidance they can’t get elsewhere.
Daniels’ spokeswoman Jane Jankowski said that after the regular session ended, Daniels ordered state agencies to re-evaluate plans to close the school and determine any future use. She said he decided this past weekend to convert it into a home for the Indiana National Guard’s Hoosier Youth Challenge Academy, which is now based at Camp Atterbury south of Indianapolis.
The academy is a 17-month program — five months of it residential when youth are housed together — for high school dropouts age 16-19. The program focuses on education, physical fitness, responsibility and life-coping skills, with a goal of graduates earning a GED. The current class has an enrollment of 76.
Martin Umbarger, adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard, said more space was needed at Camp Atterbury to expand military training.
Youth Challenge is 60 percent federally funded and 40 percent state funded, with Indiana’s operating share about $1.2 million. Umbarger said it might cost more than $2 million to make repairs and reconfigure some space at the school to accommodate Youth Challenge.
Umbarger said some buildings would remain isolated, a reason cited for the renovation cost estimates being so much lower than those cited earlier by the administration.
Bryan Harris, a member of an advisory board to the school who attended there from 1975 to 1979, said it was unfortunate “the governor didn’t hear the message” of the Legislature to keep the school and home open under its current mission.
“I’m not his adviser, but I don’t know why you want on your resume that you want to close a children’s home,” Harris said.
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