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School buses have been disappearing in Indiana. That's largely because school districts are having trouble paying for them. As many as a dozen Indiana districts are threatening to cut back on busing. Franklin Township, near Indianapolis, is already charging families monthly fees for their kids to ride the bus.
As Kyle Stokes reports, the problem can be traced back to a voter-imposed limit on property taxes.
KYLE STOKES, BYLINE: Last year, it took Jeff Bennett less than a minute to drive his son to school. This morning, it took him nearly half an hour.
JEFF BENNETT: I live just at the end of this street.
STOKES: His son can't walk to school because there are no sidewalks on these rural roads. A line of at least a hundred cars is snaking out of the parking lot at Franklin Township Middle School East. Bennett is stuck in it. To pass the time, he brought a book.
BENNETT: I mean, you see I'm parked with the engine off and school is getting ready to release here in 10 minutes. It's crazy.
STOKES: 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.
BENNETT: Looks like we're starting.
(SOUNDBITE OF IGNITION)
STOKES: 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 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.
WALTER BOURKE: Do more with less is to not provide transportation. That's what that means to us.
STOKES: Franklin Township superintendent Walter Bourke says the caps have cut his district's revenues by 36 percent.
BOURKE: When we have to cut services and cut programs and cut stuff, transportation has been our victim. So that's what we're doing. We're balancing our budget right now and it's horrible.
STOKES: If Walter Bourke sounds angry to you...
BOURKE: I am angry. I lost $16 million. You know, I don't know exactly who to blame for it.
STOKES: Some blame the voters. John Ellis heads the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. He says anti-tax sentiment propelled the property tax caps to passage.
DR. JOHN ELLIS: I talked to a lot of very fiscal conservative legislators over the last several years who have said this is a mistake, but I'm going to have to vote for it. So I think that shows that there was a groundswell from the population, from the voters themselves.
STOKES: School districts across the country face their own property tax troubles. Jason Delisle heads the New America Foundation's Federal Education Budget Project. Because it's taken time for local governments to lower property values after the 2008 recession, Delisle says, collections now are only beginning to reflect sagging home values.
JASON DELISLE: It looks like states have turned the corner on revenue collection. That's totally not the story for local revenue. In fact, you know, they're starting to bottom out or still headed towards the bottom.
STOKES: 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. And to further complicate matters, a Franklin Township parent just filed a lawsuit to try and 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.
For NPR News, I'm Kyle Stokes.
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