Muncie IN schools have many options to keep bus service

Community overwhelmingly opposed to ending yellow buses

By Rick Yencer

MUNCIE, INDIANA (NEWS) - Muncie school leaders found a community opposed to their plan to end school bus service based on their claim of no money to pay for it.

Actually, the Indiana Department of Education heard several ways Monday night, like restructuring school debt, using Rainy Day funds and even having MITS (that now provides rides for 7-12 students) do more. A public hearing Monday was held to consider public testimony on the school's plan to waive the law and end bus service next year. The state will rule on that petition in a month.

 The bottom line is that Mark Burkhart, Muncie schools chief financial officer, insists that robbing the school system of its transportation fund is only a one year problem, according to representatives of the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

 And members of the Good Government and Tea Party groups were on hand to insist that MCS could find other means to provide bus service, including restructuring the current $2.3 million, 100 routes, 40 bus system. They even offered documentation to state education officials that school officials were just trying to pick taxpayers's pocket, as Jim Arnold, a local Tea Party member said.

 "Taxpayers do not trust Muncie Community Schools with one more penny to spend," said Arnold.

The waiver to end bus service in 2014 did not make sense after taxpayers offered evidence that restructuring the schools' over $50 million debt could easily raise $3 million a year for bus service. The school system just borrowed millions to renovate schools and is still paying the bond on Wilson Middle School that will be closed and moved to Southside that will no longer be a high school in 2014.

Steve Fields, a former township trustee, brought the most compelling testimony, saying the debt protect law school officials used as a reason for seeking referendum to seek an extra $3 million in taxes would only impact the schools for a year.

And the schools have a $2.1 million Rainy Day fund that could be used to run yellow buses while restructuring debt would bring another $3 million a year.

Chris Hiatt, of the Good Government group, had a statement from DLGF budget director Courtney Schaafsma which said the protected taxes law that limits funding for schools had not even taken effect and does not affect the taxing unit's authority to transfer money from general fund to transportation needs.

Margaret Niccum of the Tea Party said the group opposed the referendum yet still wanted students to have transportation. She and others encouraged the school leaders to look at living within their means and using other funds to operate buses.

Muncie school bus drivers who supported the referendum were now opposing attempts to end bus service, and still agreed with school leaders that yellow buses were the safest means of transporting elementary school students.

And Teresa Clemmons, a bus driver, offered the state a petition with nearly 1,400 names wanting yellow buses to take their kids to school.

 It was obvious even from Burkhart;s testimony, that an interlocal agreement with Muncie's bus system to transport middle and high school students could also include elementary school students.

By law, the Muncie bus system must pick up anyone waiting at a bus stop, but officials imply they cannot serve elementary school students.

State education officials, including Melissa Ambre, asked whether school leaders had talked with Muncie bus officials and what other steps have been taken outside of raising taxes to ensure safe transportation to school.

 Burkhart, who has worked for Muncie schools for 35 years, did not offer much of a plan, which surprised some in the audience.

State Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, even offered to file a repeal of the protected taxes law, saying it was causing problems for other school systems. A recent legislative education committee hearing found plenty of school leaders upset with property tax controls and that 2012 protected taxes law that would limit some school funds for transportation and capital needs..

School board members at the meeting did not testify, but board member Debbie Feick said she supported Errington's move to repeal the protected taxes law. But taking money out of general fund for buses would reduce academics, cause teacher layoffs and have other negative impacts on education.

Actually, the school board already could be reducing staff by going to one high school and closing a middle school.

Burkhart continued to deny the school system forced a referendum before exhausting other financial means to pay for buses. And school officials did not discuss any downsizing of current bus service.

 The school system operates on a $77 million yearly budget and still has more than $50 million debt from past school building projects.