Indiana district mulls ending free school bus service

FORTVILLE, Ind. — A second central Indiana school district is contemplating whether to end free school bus service for most students in a money-saving move.

The Mount Vernon school district in Hancock County, facing statewide property tax caps and steep debt payments, could join a suburban Indianapolis district that has turned its buses over to an outside agency that is charging monthly fees of at least $40 per child for bus service.

Tim Armstrong, a consultant with Indianapolis-based Educational Services Co., which is working with Mount Vernon district, said more Indiana districts could be headed toward the same decision.

"I think 2013 will be a pretty eye-opening year for school districts," Armstrong told The Indianapolis Star for a story published Wednesday. "I'd be shocked if across this state right now there are not others considering (eliminating bus service) even if they are not talking about it yet."

The Mount Vernon district, with about 3,700 students in a rural area dotted with subdivisions just east of Indianapolis, could save much of its $1.2 million transportation fund if it decides to end bus service. State law only requires school districts to transport special-education students.

Because busing is among the costliest school services not required by state law, Mount Vernon should end it as soon as possible, Armstrong said.

"These are crisis recommendations here," Armstrong said. "They are not made lightly."

District Superintendent Bill Riggs said ending bus service is an option but promised that buses would continue to roll through the current school year. The district's school board will be considering its 2012 budget over the coming months.

"Hopefully there will be some kind of relief out of the Indiana General Assembly," he said.

Part of the district's financial struggles stem from a $100 million building program over the past decade to accommodate rapid enrollment growth — a trend that abruptly stopped with the national recession.

The chairman of the state Senate's Appropriations Committee said while the district faces a genuine financial crisis he questions whether district officials have made all the correct decisions.

"You have to look at what did they build, and what could they have afforded to build?" said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville. "Under previous law, there were no curbs to help anyone make a decision that maybe they can't afford as much as they want."

The Franklin Township district in suburban Indianapolis encountered protests from parents this fall with the beginning of the school bus fees. About 2,500 students are now riding school buses in the district, down from more than 7,000 last year.

Voters in both districts have rejected referendums in the past two years seeking property tax increases for the schools.

One parent said at a Mount Vernon School Board meeting this week that she wouldn't send her children to schools not served by buses.

"Should the bus routes end, all three of my children would be pulled from the schools and attend somewhere else," said Carla Payne of McCordsville.


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