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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Ind. Courts - "School bus fees case to state Supreme Court"

The case of Lora Hoagland v. Franklin Township Community School Corp., set to be argued before the Supreme Court on Nov. 24th, was the subject of a long story yesterday in the Indianapolis Star, reported by Stephanie Wang. Some quotes:

What the case will likely come down to is what the state constitution means by mandating tuition-free public schools that are open to all, said Indiana University McKinney School of Law clinical professor Cynthia Baker.

“The meaning of that is being critically explored because of all these attendant and expensive aspects of what it is to educate a public school student today,” she said.

A previous Supreme Court decision, 2006’s Nagy v. Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp., ruled unconstitutional a $20 per-student fee that went into the district’s general fund to help pay for school staff and student activities, whether students participated in them or not.

In essence, the court said in a 4-1 opinion, it amounted to a tuition for attending public schools.

Baker, who is also McKinney’s director of its Program on Law and State Government, said the Supreme Court could apply the same analytical framework to Franklin Township’s bus fees. It could conclude that the idea of having a public school system only really works when students are physically present, so it would be inappropriate to pass that cost down to families.

And yet, Baker pointed out, Indiana is one of a handful of states where students pay textbook fees.

“I think that’s a pretty fine line,” she said. “All students need instructional materials.”

Baker also cites another Supreme Court opinion, 2009’s Bonner v. State of Indiana, where residents sued over whether public education was good enough. The court ruled that the state constitution does not address the quality of public education — leaving that up to the legislature to determine.

It could be similar, she said, with school buses and other elements of education: If not clearly delineated in the state constitution the Supreme Court could say it’s up to the government. The Court of Appeals, however, had said laws requiring transportation for special needs students implied access for all.

At the crux of the case, however, is a political point — not a legal one.

“It would certainly increase the political pressure on a recalibration of how we, all Hoosiers, pay for our — all public school — students in our state’s public education,” Baker said.

Districts have been suffering from property tax caps that stifle school tax revenue. Transportation and capital projects, including building maintenance, are paid out of those funds.

[Franklin Township Schools Superintendent Flora] Reichanadter says Franklin Township schools soon won’t have enough money from the local tax base to pay for buses.

“If it is a right,” she said, “the legislature needs to set aside money to pay for this.”

And Franklin Township isn’t the only district struggling under tax caps. Under a state law that resulted from Franklin Township’s school bus fees, three districts have notified the state Department of Education that in three years, they may have to eliminate transportation services.

Among them: Decatur Township, which after giving its notice passed a referendum this year to increase property taxes.

The list also includes the Westfield Washington and Danville districts.

“It’s not going to get any better,” said J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. “It’s in the hands of the legislators. They’re the ones that enacted property tax caps. ... They created the problem; they’re going to have to create a solution.”

Posted by Marcia Oddi on November 5, 2014 08:12 AM
Posted to Upcoming Oral Arguments