Constitutional guarantee at issue in Supreme Court bus fee case

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Indiana Supreme Court justices quizzed lawyers in a case over school busing fees Monday about the limit of the state's constitutional guarantee of a free public education.

A parent in the Franklin Township school district is challenging the transportation fees established during the 2011-2012 school year.

The district had eliminated free bus service for that year as it tried to reduce financial losses that were due largely to property tax caps after a tax referendum failed. That led to protests from families and long lines of cars at the district's schools as many parents decided to drive their children to school rather than pay the fees.

What the court decides could have broad consequences for cash-strapped school districts throughout the state, as they look for additional funding. Ending bus service is not an option, after state lawmakers mandated schools provide transportation in a 2012 law. The court did not indicate when it might rule.

The state Court of Appeals decided unanimously this past June that the Marion County district violated the constitution when it allowed an outside contractor to charge families for bus service.

One of the key precedents argued Monday was a 2006 Supreme Court case in which the state's high court determined that a $20 transportation fee in the Evansville-Vanderburgh district violated the constitutional guarantee of education.

Ian Thompson, an attorney for the Franklin schools parent who brought the lawsuit, argued that the ruling in Nagy v. Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp. should go beyond simply barring fees to also mandating public transportation for students.

"Take Nagy one step further that not only may they not charge a fee, but by discontinuing a service that falls within what's considered a uniform system of public education, they are not following their constitutional mandate," Thompson argued.

But Chief Justice Loretta Rush grilled Thompson over whether he was asking too much of the court.

"Where does it end?" she asked. "What you want us to do is to read into the educational clause a constitutional right for public transportation to schools throughout Indiana and take that decision-making away from the General Assembly."

Indiana allows schools to charge families for textbooks, but that provision is clearly included in Indiana's statutes. Justice Steven David noted that if state lawmakers wanted to allow schools to charge transportation fees, they would have written it into the law.

"They could have said all public schools shall provide free transportation," he said.

The pain of cash-strapped school districts has been felt in various ways throughout the state.

Property tax caps, approved by voters in 2008, dramatically overhauled how Indiana pays for education. Early efforts by school districts to override the tax caps and increase school funding failed, but the public sentiment appeared to shift some in last May's primary election, when nine out of 10 referendums increasing property taxes were approved.

Pressure has also been building on state lawmakers to increase how much money suburban and rural schools receive in comparison to the state's urban schools. Republican leaders have said it will be a top issue for the 2015 session.

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