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January 24, 2014

Lawmakers push for temporary remedy for school transportation woes

Bill would stall new requirement for three years.

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 due to 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 for 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.

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