News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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January 23, 2014

Temporary fix for school bus woes in works

Only hardest-hit districts expected to see relief

INDIANAPOLIS — A temporary fix is in the making for school districts losing millions in transportation funds, but only the hardest hit may see relief.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously passed a bill to essentially stall for three years a new law that requires schools to pay off their debts before spending money on school buses and big-ticket projects.

The Senate bill would apply to fewer than 60 school districts – those set to lose at least 20 percent of their funds for transportation and capital project because of the new “protected levy” law.

Schools losing less than that would be left to absorb the cuts or dip into their operating funds, which pay for teacher and administrator salaries.

Supporters of the bill said it’s primarily aimed at helping districts in counties still recovering from the recession, which brought deep declines in property values and tax revenues needed to keep schools running.

“It’s a Band-Aid,” said state Sen. Ryan Mischler, R-Bremen. “But it’s a Band-Aid they should be able to grow out of on their own.”

Some of his fellow committee members disagreed, questioning how quickly the economy is rebounding.

“This is like putting a Band-Aid on a bleeding artery,” said state Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute. “We’re going to have more people coming in on their hands and knees begging us for money so they can provide transportation for schoolchildren.”

A similar bill that would benefit more schools is making its way through House. But the Senate version is expected to prevail. Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, has made it clear that he wants the final version to be narrowly focused.

The protected levy law was passed in 2012 but its implementation delayed until this July. It takes money out of districts’ transportation, bus replacement and capital funds, diverting those dollars into debt service.

But it comes as cash-strapped schools are still adjusting to property tax caps passed by lawmakers in 2008. Those caps have already cut into the dollars that schools collect to keep buses running and repair leaky roofs.  

State Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, wanted to create a fund to help hard-hit schools replace revenue lost by the property tax caps. With no support from Senate fiscal leaders, Head had to abandon that plan in favor of the bill passed by the committee Thursday.

“It doesn’t help every school district that may need help,” Head said. “But it’s what we can get now, and it gives us some time to come back and look at this again next session.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indiana

mediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter@Maureen.Hayden

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