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.”

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”