Indiana's public school districts wouldn't be able to end school bus service for their students under a proposal advancing in the General Assembly after protests from parents in a suburban Indianapolis district who now face annual bills of more than $400 a child for rides to and from school.
The fees started in the Franklin Township district last fall after voters rejected a referendum to raise property taxes to help close an $8 million budget shortfall and the district turned its buses over to an outside agency that now provides transportation — leading some other districts to consider a similar money-saving step.
Republican Rep. Mike Speedy, whose Indianapolis district includes the Franklin Township district, told the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday that not only can many families not afford to pay the fees, there has been a great increase in traffic around schools as many more parents are driving their children and more students are walking along roads without sidewalks.
"As a result of charging fees, you create a dangerous mix of cars and students and buses in the morning when it's dark, when it's snowy," Speedy said. "It's just a matter of time before someone gets hurt."
Speedy argued that school districts are prohibited from charging bus fees and that they shouldn't be able to bypass that law by following Franklin Township's example of turning its transportation services over to an educational services cooperative controlled by it and other districts.
Franklin Township officials didn't speak during Wednesday's legislative hearing, but have maintained their decision is legal despite an opinion from the state attorney general's office that the district's action violates the state constitution and a lawsuit filed in November by a parent challenging the fees.
District Superintendent Walter Bourke has said that a law requiring school districts to transport students could force struggling districts into bankruptcy.
School officials say many districts around the state are facing budget troubles due in large part to statewide property-tax caps passed by the Legislature in 2008. Schools' transportation budgets, along with school bus replacement and construction projects, are funded entirely from property taxes.
Messages seeking comment were left for Bourke and the school district's attorney
The House voted 92-2 last week in favor of banning the bus fees. The Senate committee is expected to vote next week on whether to advance the proposal to the full Senate.