Who Is In Charge

Indiana Supreme Court says schools can cut busing

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When her district faced an $18 million loss in tax dollars in 2011-12, Franklin Township Superintendent Flora Reichanadter had to make a difficult decision: Eliminate funding for the district’s busing or cut teachers and classroom resources?

She went with the former, which prompted a lawsuit and three-year debate about whether Indiana students have a constitutional right to ride a bus to school.

Today the Indiana Supreme Court gave its answer: The state constitution does not require school districts to offer busing. That could clear the way for other cash-strapped schools to tell kids to find their own rides to school.

Franklin Township actually reinstated busing in 2012, but Reichanadter said the court’s ruling justified the hard decision she said she made to keep teachers while parking the district’s buses.

“It’s really just an affirmation that what we did at the time was the best we could do with the finances we had at the time,” Reichanadter said.

Jeff Butts, superintendent in Wayne Township and treasurer for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said the Supreme Court’s ruling, which overturned a lower court decision, gives other districts across the state a lot to think about when money gets tight.

“It’s a big win for the school district,” Butts said. “We are happy for them. We know that it created controversy in their community and it created some strife, but I’m happy for Franklin Township, and I think this is something that every school district is now going to have to take a look at.”

In the midst of the 2011 budget squeeze, Reichanadter said Franklin’s school board was adamant that it would not cut teaching jobs or academic programs.

“Rather than take the money out of the general fund, which is paid for at the state level, we chose at that time to eliminate transportation,” Reichanadter said. “If we wouldn’t have eliminated transportation, we would have had to eliminate staff, and at the time our board did not want to impact the classroom.”

The district shortfall had two causes, she said: caps on property taxes passed by the legislature in 2010, which cost the district about $18 million per year, and a failed referendum. Voters did not approve a request to increase their property taxes to give the district more money.

The tax caps were put into place as an effort to make property taxes, which sometimes shifted up or down unexpectedly for homeowners when their home values changed, more stable. Most school district spending today comes from state sales and income tax and is doled out by the legislature. Schools can use property taxes to pay down debt for school buildings, support building maintenance and fund busing.

Tax caps effectively stabilized tax bills for homeowners and businesses, but put some school districts that were paying down debt in a tough spot.

Reichanadter said Franklin Township was hit especially hard by the tax caps, as 94 percent of the township’s property taxes come from homeowners, who are taxed at a lower rate than businesses and farmers. School districts with more businesses and fewer residences generally raise more property tax money.

As budgets became tight, hard decisions had to be made, she said.

“It became really, for us, about survival,” Reichanadter said. “It was necessary. We literally did not have the funds.”

But some parents were furious. Schools became mired in traffic jams of parents dropping kids off. When the district cut a deal for an outside bus company to offer rides to school that parents had to pay for, a group of them filed a lawsuit.

The suit demanded reimbursement for families who were driving their own children to school and refunds of the busing fee the company charged for families that used that service. The Supreme Court’s ruling said that parents could not get a refund because schools are not constitutionally required to provide busing. It also said schools can’t charge a a separate fee for bus service.

By 2012 the district was able to refinance some of its debt, lowering its interest payments. That freed up money it used to restore bus service after just one year without it. Although the district is busing kids now, it might not always be able to do so, Reichanadter said, because of changes to how the state is funding schools and because the tax caps don’t seem to be going anywhere.

Under the budget proposed by the Indiana House, Franklin Township gets just $16 more per student, or about $137,000 per year, she said.

“This decision just barely scratches at the surface of funding public education because we still continue to struggle with the tax caps,” Reichanadter said.  “That’s not going to help my transportation fund that runs on $4 million to $5 million.”

Butts said Wayne Township is facing a funding shortfall, too. If it can’t close its $8 million gap with a referendum to voters this spring, reducing bus service could be on the table. Wayne currently offers free busing to all its students, as many schools aren’t in neighborhoods with sidewalks or safe walking zones. But that $8.8 million transportation budget, or part of it, could also be useful elsewhere, Butts said.

“If you don’t have safe walking routes to and from school, then you also create a safety issue for your children,” Butts said. “But the reality is you have to find a way to fund all the different pieces, and when you have a reduced revenue stream, you also have to find a way to make sure you are providing all the services that are essential to the classroom.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.