School buses have been disappearing in Indiana in large part because districts can no longer rely on a steady funding stream to pay for them.
As many as a dozen Indiana districts are threatening to cut back on busing.
In Franklin Township, near Indianapolis, the school district is already charging families monthly fees for their kids to ride the school bus. It can all be traced back to property taxes.
Forced To Cut Transportation
Last year, it took Jeff Bennett less than a minute to drive his son to school. On a recent morning, it took him nearly half an hour.
His son can't walk to school because there are no sidewalks on the rural roads. A line of at least 100 cars snakes out of the parking lot at Franklin Township Middle School East. Bennett is stuck in it. To pass the time, he brought a book.
"I mean, you see I'm parked with the engine off, and school's getting ready to release here in 10 minutes," he says. "It's crazy."
Most Franklin Township parents now prefer suffering in traffic jams and carpools to paying fees to the district for their kids to ride the bus. Starting this year, families have to pay between $40 and $50 per student each month to ride the bus.
In the past, property taxes covered the cost of busing students. But last November, Indiana voters overwhelmingly passed a cap on the state's property tax rate. That's kinked the revenue stream that districts across the state use to maintain their buildings, pay down debt and keep buses on the roads. Proponents of the plan argued that it would force districts to budget based on revenues, not expenditures — and learn to do more with less.
"Do more with less means cut transportation," says Franklin Township Superintendent Walter Bourke. "That's what that means for us."
Bourke says the caps have cut his district's revenues by 36 percent.
"When we have to cut services and cut programs and cut stuff, transportation has been our victim," he says. "So that's what we're doing. We're balancing our budget right now, and it's horrible."
Bourke says he's angry.
"I lost $16 million," he says. "I don't know exactly who to blame for it."
Local Revenue 'Still Heading Toward The Bottom'
Some blame the voters. John Ellis, who heads the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, says anti-tax sentiment propelled the property tax caps to passage.
"I talked to a lot of very fiscal conservative legislators over the last several years who said this is a mistake, but I'm gonna have to vote for it," Ellis says. "I think that shows there was a groundswell from the population, from the voters themselves."
School districts across the country face their own property tax troubles. Because it's taken time for local governments to lower property values after the 2008 recession, collections now are only beginning to reflect sagging home values.
"It looks like states have turned the corner on revenue collection," says Jason Delisle, who leads the New America Foundation's Federal Education Budget Project. "That's totally not the story for local revenue. In fact, you know, they're starting to bottom out, or still heading towards the bottom."
Since property taxes can account for half or more of a district's revenue, Delisle thinks state governments should kick in more money to help out. But Franklin Township administrators aren't sure they can count on that. To further complicate matters, a Franklin Township parent just filed a lawsuit to try to stop the district's busing fees.
Her lawyers aim to make it a class-action suit, putting even more pressure on the school district to find another way to keep budget cuts from showing up in the classroom.