Indiana

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Why Closing A School Won’t Keep Buses Running In Muncie

Supporters of Muncie Southside High School asked the Board of Trustees not to close the school. But district officials concluded the building could not be converted to house students in 7-12 grade.

Supporters of Muncie Southside High School asked the Board of Trustees not to close the school. But district officials concluded the building could not be converted to house students in 7-12 grade. Next year all high schoolers in the district will go to Muncie Central.

The Muncie Community Schools Board of Trustees voted this week to consolidate the city’s two high schools. The merger is expected to save the district $1.7 million annually — but it’s unlikely to solve the district’s transportation problems.

Earlier this month voters rejected a referendum that district officials said would keep school buses running. But buildings and buses are two separate issues.

“Very seldom will you have two initiatives like this at the same time,” says Superintendent Tim Heller, who on Monday recommended the board vote to move all high school students to Central and reopen Southside as a middle school.

Despite the efforts of Southside parents and students, who packed town hall meetings advocating for moving grades 7-12 into the high school buildings, the board voted 4-1 in favor of the plan.

Logistically, Heller says there just wasn’t enough space at Southside to make it work. So next year Southside will house grades 6-8, and the district will close Wilson Middle School.

“I was principal of Muncie South for three years,” says Heller. “I would certainly hate to have to close that school. But by the same token, my goal is to continue to meet the payroll on the 5th and 20th of each month.”

Closing Southside, says Heller, will help make that happen. But it won’t save the district enough to pay for bus service, too.

Property Tax Caps Exacerbate District’s Financial Woes

Muncie’s financial woes have been going on for some time. In the past six years, the district has lost about 1,000 students, cutting the amount of funding it receives from the state.

But declining enrollment isn’t the district’s only problem. Muncie has also lost revenue to property tax caps, which were added to the constitution in 2010.

MCS Chief Financial Officer Mark Burkhart says property tax revenue next year will be down 89 percent from before the caps took effect.

“We have about a $4 million transportation fund levy,” says Burkhart. “If you’re going to give us about 11 percent of that, you’re a little over $400,000.”

Closing a school will help the district’s facilities and maintenance costs, which officials also use property tax dollars to pay.

But the savings won’t be immediate enough to make enough room in the budget for the district’s $3 million transportation contract. So earlier this month Muncie put a 39-cent tax levy before voters. If the referendum failed, district officials said they’d be hard-pressed to pay for buses.

But Citizens of Delaware County for Good Government Vice President Chris Hiatt says he’s sick of hearing the school district blame the tax caps.

“Property tax caps are here to stay,” says Hiatt, a local businessman and vocal opponent of the referendum. “They’re in the constitution.”

Hiatt and other members of his organization felt the district should never have made the election about buses.

“Are there options that are viable, and alternatives to taking the school bus away from our children?” he tells StateImpact. “Oh yeah.”

And the majority of Muncie voters agreed with Hiatt: They rejected the referendum.

Why The Busing Referendum Was A Hard Sell In Muncie

Part of the problem may be that transportation issues don’t resonate with voters, says Purdue University economist Larry DeBoer.

“The transportation thing just doesn’t seem to do the trick,” says DeBoer, who studies referenda. “Maybe people can’t imagine what it would be like not to have transportation. Maybe people just don’t believe the school corporation won’t pull some money out of some hat somewhere and continue with the transportation.”

Citizens of Delaware County for Good Government Vice President Chris Hiatt says the district needs to find a way to pay for buses without increasing taxes.

Citizens of Delaware County for Good Government Vice President Chris Hiatt says the district needs to find a way to pay for buses without increasing taxes.

Hiatt has a different theory: He says school officials in Muncie should have acted sooner to cut costs to show taxpayers they were serious about getting the district’s finances in order.

“I truly believe that had they acted before the referendum  — and maybe in retrospect asked for less for money — they might have had a successful effort,” says Hiatt.

Hiatt thinks waiting until after the election to close schools hurt the district’s chances of passing a tax levy increase. He says the district needs to find some other way to pay for transportation.

Superintendent Heller says there’s just not room in the budget.

“We certainly don’t have a surplus of money sitting anyplace that we can tap into,” he says.

The state requires school districts to provide three years’ notice before stopping bus service, or else seek a waiver with the Indiana Department of Education. If Muncie doesn’t get permission to stop transportation at the end of this school year, then district officials will have to figure out how to pay for buses for two more years. That would leave time for another referenda attempt in 2015.

But there’s no telling how successful it would be. Of the 11 Indiana school districts that have taken questions back to voters for a second try, only four have been successful.

Comments

  • Bill Fields

    2015 will also give time for a new school board. Plus get Heller out before we become another Paducah Ky.

  • leon dixon

    Larry ignores the fiscal mismanagement of MCS, their long history of bricks, mortar, and debts, e.g. $9,000,000.00 a year in debt service. So, the main factor would be to note that mismanagement and that pockets have been well lined in comparison to those who pay the taxes for the mismanagements. Any competent receiver would make adjustments to personnel costs especially in bringing their health care costs in line with community norms.

  • leon dixon

    Oh, and IPads? Did they really need X millions of dollars worth of Ipads?

  • Kim Vilmann Ferraro

    @Leon Dixon The first thing you learn in any economics class is to not let past financial decisions impact present and future ones. Usually it means to not think you have to keep spending to support something just because you already have $XX sunk in it, but the opposite is also true, that you can’t let past financial outlays that may in hindsight have been imprudent, prevent you from making wise financial decisions that involve an outlay today. If your want to hold a the school district hostage because of debt service then nothing will ever get resolved. And AGAIN, which the people of Muncie just can’t seem to grasp, there is this state law about money “silos” and debt service and transportation just can’t come from the same pools of money. The good thing is, the current crop of Muncie students will be able to tell their grandchildren how they walked to school uphill both ways in the drifting snow and it will be true.

    • concerned parent

      I am from Muncie and lived here my whole life. Why would you RISK your children’s lives by getting rid of transportation. Many people have a hard time getting there kids on the bus because most of us parents are at work. But let’s keep on buying IPADS instead of the well being of our children. The crime rates have went up because of the economy so lets send our kids walking to school so they can become a victim of crime, that’s really protecting our children right, I think not. The children do not need their own IPAD’s it does not protect them from the evil predators who want to do harm to our children. Why did they even build Wilson if they were just going to let it sit-right there is a sign of misuse of money that could of been used for buses, the IPADs could have been kept in each room and used for each student, half of the classes do not even use them the ones that do send homework to do on them when some people cannot access the internet. Why spend money for internet, IPADs when you could utilize it for something more useful for students such as buses, the bus drivers are now jobless because of this ignorant decision to get rid of the transportation, and combine schools and close schools, and build schools that are not going to be in use. Whoever is the brain of these decisions obviously does not have children or a heart and soul for many parents who really care about the well being of their children and not just by trying to keep up with Indy.

      • Kim Vilmann Ferraro

        Gentle parent, I understand your concerns and don’t think I was condoning dropping bus service. What you need to understand is that iPads and bus service cannot, by state law, come out of the same pool of funds. Purchasing or not purchasing iPads is not going to affect your ability to provide busses for your children. What affects your ability to provide busses is the tax caps put in place by the Daniels administration and the inability to pass a referendum. That’s it. Period. State law does not allow for any other option. So you have two roads to take here, well really three – you change state law so that money can be used more fluidly by the school districts, you work within the current law and pass a referendum or you do without busses. The laws really don’t care about the safety of your child and the rising crime rate but it is going to care about anyone in the school financial administration who misuses funds in a way that might provide transportation if those funds aren’t from the proper allocation. Nothing compares to the wrath of the State Board of Accounts and they take these thing very personally as in the person that misuses the monies is the one that pays for the crime financially and even time behind bars. I wouldn’t take that chance for your child or even all the children in Muncie.

        • Fran Tucker

          State law does allow for the transferring of money now. Unfortunately, it was the board that voted to apply for a waiver, the board that voted to put the referendum to vote. And, if your economics teacher told you not to consider past expenditures in future expenditures, I would suggest your teacher was inept.

          I would like to say this about the tax caps…if you own a home, or even if you don’t, did you know you can pay more? No one ever does, though. I could cite a couple of examples.

          But the bottom line is, Muncie is going through very tough financial times and many of the people could not bear an additional $45 million tax increase.

          The waiver required for the district to provide a plan to safely get children to and from school. The plan submitted included four sentences. When queried at the hearing, the district admitted they had no plan. It’s yet to be determined how IDOE will rule on this.

  • Muncie Voice

    First off, Chris Hiatt represents the Tea Party which hides inside the auspices of a “citizens for good government”. I guess they are ashamed to let the public know about their real association.

    Secondly, as a convicted felon, Hiatt is unable to run for office so he uses this group to manipulate property owners (mainly slumlords around the Ball State campus) and a bunch of senile old farts who think sustainability is a conspiracy by communists to overtake the world.

    Why the media shoves microphones in these peoples faces is beyond me since there add nothing to the mix. Like all conservative astroturf organizations, they use a “concerned citizen” name to cover up their real motives and agenda. The only way they persuaded people to vote against the referendum was to lie to them about mismanagement of funds, evil government, tax and spend socialists, etc.

    Until Indiana runs these idiot tea party members out of this state and boots them back into the hills or the deep south where they belong, we will continue seeing embarrassing politicians supported by grossly misinformed voters.

  • Fran Tucker
  • Fran Tucker

    The voter we’re not ill-informed. How could they be with all the press coverage. The voters read the ballot and voted accordingly. Even shutting down city hall so the employees could campaign on taxpayer dollars did’t sway the voters.

    Some would like you to believe voters were stupid…nothing is farther from the truth. People are coming together to address the bussing. Much to the chagrined of a few people. Those which want to keep the division alive instead of working towards a resolution are not very happy. The shift is changing and I’m see the beginning of a solidarity movement which makes some angry and vile. Sent from the phone excuse errors.

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