School districts aren't required to provide bus transportation for students under the state constitution, the Indiana Supreme Court said Tuesday in a ruling that could impact cash-strapped districts.
The decision stems from a case involving the Franklin Township school district in Indianapolis, which was sued after it eliminated free bus service for the 2011-2012 school year. The 9,000-student district turned to a private contractor and required parents to pay for their children to ride after voters rejected a referendum to raise property taxes to help close an $8 million budget shortfall.
Long lines of cars formed as angry parents opted to drive their children rather than pay hundreds of dollars for bus service. Two parents filed a class-action lawsuit, arguing that bus service was required under the constitution's Education Clause. The district reinstated service, and lawmakers in 2012 revised state law to specify that districts "may" provide transportation but cannot charge fees unless it's for special events.
The Indiana Court of Appeals found the school district violated the constitution when it stopped providing transportation to and from school. But the Supreme Court justices rejected that, saying while the constitution refers to a free public education, "the framers did not intend for every aspect of public education to be free."
"This court does not dispute that being present at school is necessary to avail oneself of the benefits of the education offered there. However, that does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the school corporation alone must provide transportation under the Education Clause," Justice Steven David wrote.
The unanimous ruling said the court has "neither the ability nor the duty" to establish requirements for school systems, a duty that falls to lawmakers and state code.
"It will inevitably require some families to make alternative accommodations, but it will not close the schoolhouse doors," David wrote of Tuesday's decision.
Franklin Township Supt. Flora Reichanadter said the district is "pleased to have found closure."
"Obviously, it affirms our case that we indeed were not acting in an unconstitutional way when we had to make the tough decision to eliminate bus service," she said.