Since covering how Elkhart, Goshen and Concord are needing to look at where to cut expenses in their transportation budgets, I’ve received a few direct messages and seen many others online asking why schools would cut busing of all things.
Here’s where I’ll try to explain what’s brought schools to this point.
The general fund, which covers teachers and staff’s salaries and benefits, is distributed to schools by the state, through mostly sales tax.
Here are schools’ other funds, all funded through local property taxes:
- transportation — covers gas, drivers’ pay, bus maintenance
- bus replacement — covers the cost of new buses, though the state sets how often schools can buy new buses and how much a district can pay per bus
- capital projects — covers building and technology maintenance and repairs
- debt service — covers loan debt
- pension bond — covers past employees’ pensions
Each year, schools set a budget for the year, setting amounts for how much they would like to receive through local property taxes, but also how much they may realistically bring in, since not only schools, but other entities like cities, townships and libraries are also setting how much they hope to receive from taxpayers. In addition, the amount some taxpayers can pay is limited by the “circuit break’ tax caps.
School finance officials knew months ago that the transportation fund would be tight because of tax caps. What made it even more difficult was that the state said that schools would have to absorb any shortfall (from what they asked for in property taxes and what came through after the tax caps) proportionately between transportation, bus replacement and capital project funds.
The general assembly passed Senate Bill 517 this legislative session, which allows schools to not have to equally divide their the loss due to tax caps equally between just those three funds. That means, for example, that Goshen Community Schools can keep more money in its transportation fund by taking more out of its capital projects fund.
Goshen School Board member Dan West pointed out at a meeting Monday night, May 13, that the state’s “help” through SB 517, though, has only allowed them “to rob Peter to pay Paul” and that schools will continue to be hard pressed to find sufficient funding for busing and building upkeep.
Elkhart and Goshen school systems project they’ll have far less money from property taxes available next year. So, while it’s difficult to work through what cuts they see necessary this year, they may need to do far more next year, administrators have said.
James Ramer, another Goshen School Board member and the school board representative on the transportation study group, said at Monday’s meeting that, while a few of the recommendations from the group were “low-hanging fruit, a lot are painful,” and those painful decisions will likely have to continue to be made.
Earlier in the year, administrators talked to me about how they can use less money in the capital projects fund by simply not keeping up repairs and maintenance at school buildings, though, those repairs and maintenance needs will eventually grow worse as times go on. Capital projects is also where safety improvements would come from. They can find cuts in other funds too.
When it comes to transportation, though, schools still need to get kids to and from school.
School board member Catherine Cripe noted how the property tax caps have limited the funds that focus on students’ safety–buildings and busing.
Goshen Superintendent Diane Woodworth pointed out at Monday’s board meeting that they could use general fund money to cover transportation costs, but it would mean cutting multiple teachers. More than 90 percent of the general fund pays for teachers and staff, she said.
Some administrators have also lamented several times how not having sufficient funds to work with now, means they’ll likely have to take out loans to cover such everyday things, like roofing repairs over the summer. Having to take out loans in order to pay for that, though, means that taxpayers will be paying for the projects, plus interest, through schools’ debt service levies in future years.
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