On Tuesday Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill into law that will enable dozens of school corporations in Indiana to fund school bus transportation for at least another three years. Labeled the “Tax Cap Fix,” HB 1062 gives school districts more flexibility to manage their debt and avoid major budget shortfalls.
More than 90 districts were planning to curtail or cancel yellow bus service after 2016 absent any fiscal relief from legislators, including Westfield Washington Schools, Beech Grove City School Corp. and Franklin Township Schools.
Denny Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, said the organization supports the measure because it provides a permanent solution for all school systems struggling with the aftermath of the economic recession, statewide property-tax caps and a new law on school debt repayment.
The bill specifies that a school corporation may adopt a resolution before Jan. 1, 2019, to use certain debt restructuring statutes if the property-tax circuit breaker credit impact for the school corporation is at least 10 percent of its levies. Although it was amended to allow the use of school bus advertisements to generate new revenue, House lawmakers struck this language during a conference committee.
Costerison told STN the association and its members have worked hard this past year to raise awareness and garner support for the measure.
“Our main thing was to buy some time to help these school districts so they don’t lose their transportation systems and, secondly, to get the awareness out, which I believe we have, to come up with a permanent solution,” he said.
He added he is optimistic that legislators and education officials will find a more permanent solution during this time period. Even with the new law in place, he said some hard-hit districts would continue to make budget cuts and look for other efficiencies.
“This will really assist over 90 school districts in the state that would have had to alter considerably — and some even eliminate — their transportation systems. This is very positive for those districts,” he said. “Now we have a law that’s going to protect these districts for three years. But, the key here is the law that is harmful is still on the books, so this is basically a three-year exemption of that law.”
For now, this exemption has removed the “dark cloud” hanging over these school districts, Costerison noted. Many of them are growing in enrollment so they’ve had to build new buildings and incur even more debt.
“It’s not their fault … They’ve had great losses in assessed valuation, the value of the property in their school districts, because of the way our circuit breaker works here (and) our property tax cap law. Certain districts are hit harder than others,” he continued.
On Monday the governor signed two other bills related to school bus safety and school resource officers (SROs). SB 85 allows grants for police officers in schools to be used for training the SROs, while HB 1303 requires additional notifications if a bus is ruled out of service during inspection.
The second bill was amended to include two new requirements for the markings on the back of school buses: Specifically, all new buses must display in tall, black lettering (1) the number of their school district and (2) an indication that the bus is required to stop at all railroad crossings.
Costerison emphasized that the association always comes out in support of legislation that enhances the safety of students, school personnel and others involved in education.
“HB 1303 deals with making sure buses are properly identified if something happens … if a bus rolls over, for instance. It was strictly to make them safer,” he explained. “It’s hard to believe some people don’t realize that buses need to stop at railroad crossings … but often they don’t pay attention, between talking on their cellphones and texting. A lot of drivers get distracted, which is a real problem.”