Education

Appeals Court: Schools Can’t Stop Busing, Charge Fees

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June 11, 2014 — TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Franklin Township Schools violated the Indiana Constitution when it stopped busing for students and then contracted with a private group to provide the service for a fee, the Indiana Appeals Court ruled Tuesday.

But the decision will have little practical impact in the state. The Indiana General Assembly has already passed legislation that bans schools from charging fees to transport students to school and the district has resumed busing.

In its decision Tuesday, a three-judge panel relied on a previous Indiana Supreme Court ruling that says “absent specific statutory authority, fees or charges for what are otherwise public education cost items cannot be levied directly or indirectly against students or their parents.”

And the appeals court said the General Assembly “has determined that transportation to and from school qualifies as a part of a uniform system of public education.”

The Indiana Constitution’s Education Clause – which is in Article 8, Section 1 – calls for a system of common schools that are free and open to all.

Franklin Township Schools in Indianapolis has been among the districts hardest hit by recent property tax caps that limit revenue based on property values. The district – trying to balance its budget with less money – eliminated busing for the 2011-2012 school year.

In a statement Tuesday, the school district said that it was suffering “draconian adverse effects” of the property tax changes.

The district contracted with a non-profit group to provide busing for an annual fee of $475 for one child. Parents could pay the fee or provide their own transportation.

In November 2011, two parents in the township filed a class-action lawsuit against the school corporation, challenging the constitutionality of its actions.

Lora Hoagland, whose two sons qualified for the federal free-and-reduced-lunch program, is one of the plaintiffs. She had opted to drive her children to and from school.

Donna Chapman, who paid the fee for busing, is the other plaintiff.

A trial court ruled in favor of the district, saying the Indiana Tort Claims Act barred the suit, that the women were not entitled to monetary damages and that the school did not violate the Indiana Constitution.

Hoagland appealed. In Tuesday’s ruling, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that the women did not have authority under the tort claims act to sue and that they were not entitled to damages.

But the appeals court reversed the trial court’s ruling on the constitutional issue. It sent the case back to the trial court to enter a judgment in favor of Hoagland and Chapman’s claims that the district’s action violated the constitution.

The district can appeal the ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court.

J.T. Coopman, the executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said that he doesn’t think the district did anything to intentionally violate the Indiana Constitution.

He said school officials were “looking for a creative way to provide the service.

The press release from Franklin Township Schools went on to say that because of the Opinion of the Indiana Court of Appeals, the Opinion “addressed bus operations which are no longer in existence, no changes in the current bus operation are necessary at this time.”

The school district said the appeals court decision “addresses the legality of a bus operation that no longer exists. Other than that opinion, which closes a historic chapter, the school corporation did not suffer any other adverse consequences.”

District officials said “no changes in the current bus operation are necessary at this time.”

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