Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said Thursday that it's unconstitutional for school districts to end free school bus service by turning transportation over to outside agencies.
Zoeller also said in the non-binding legal opinion that he will ask the official state auditor, the State Board of Accounts, to review a suburban Indianapolis district's transportation arrangement that charges parents fees for children to ride buses to and from school. The Franklin Township Community School Corp., citing budget troubles, sold its buses to an education cooperative that now charges as much as $47.50 per student per month to provide transportation.
"Under Indiana's Constitution and statutes, a public school corporation cannot charge fees for students to ride a bus to school to receive the public education to which they are entitled. The school cannot charge bus fees directly, and they cannot charge bus fees indirectly by outsourcing the driving to a third party," Zoeller said.
Zoeller said he researched the issue at the request of state Sen. Patricia Miller and Rep. Mike Speedy, both R-Indianapolis, who requested analysis and guidance for possible legislation to address the situation.
Franklin Township Superintendent Walter Bourke issued a statement saying administrators were reviewing the legal opinion with their attorneys. The district contends it is not involved in the contract between parents and the bus service.
The mother of two Franklin Township students sued the district over the bus fees last week, and her attorney said he planned to seek class-action status on behalf of about 8,000 families in the district.
Franklin Township contracted its bus services to Central Indiana Educational Service Center, which charges parents $47.50 for the first child per month and $40.50 for each additional child per month to bus students to and from school.
Zoeller's opinion said Indiana law would allow parents independently to contract jointly with bus drivers to provide transportation if the school district did not, but said that was not the case in the southeast side district. He the school board contracted first with the cooperative and then imposed the arrangement on parents, and that was unlawful.
Zoeller said if a State Board of Accounts audit finds that the school district has appropriated or used funds without legal authorization, his office could try to recover the money from the responsible parties.
"It is easy to understand how financial constraints might lead school corporations to difficult funding choices, which in turn have unintended consequences. Many parents who cannot or will not pay the unconstitutional school bus fee are now forced to drive their children to and from school," Zoeller said. "However, the option chosen by Franklin Township Schools cannot be justified and should be discontinued."
Zoeller issued a similar non-binding opinion last year that districts couldn't directly charge bus fees.