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Franklin Township School Bus Fiasco: The Untold Story

The story of Franklin Township’s new fee for School Buses has struck such a chord with people that it has now reached NPR.  The program hits some familiar themes: Budgets are tight, property taxes are capped, and the district is forced to do more with less.  However, being an urban design blog, I wish to highlight the fact that the township is built to be poorly equipped to cope with this problem:

A segment of Franklin Township, with the high school located in the lower right of the frame

The dominant theme of the township is single family homes built on winding streets.  The primary mode of travel is the automobile, and walking or biking to school is not an option for most children.  School buses must use a good deal of gasoline simply entering and exiting suburban neighborhoods through the same access points.  Fortunately for Franklin Township, one possible option for parents is to join a car pooling program.  It’s not a bad option, but with more potential cuts on the way in other suburban school districts, this is yet another issue that will require thought, oversight, and planning.

I believe that a focus on smarter land-use patterns is essential in discussing this intriguing dilemma.  The pattern of sprawl inevitably strains budgets and provides little opportunity for adjustment.  This is little comfort to the people dealing with this pain now, but hopefully we can learn from this, and avoid creating new problems in the future.

17 Responses to “ “Franklin Township School Bus Fiasco: The Untold Story”

  1. Richard W says:

    I grew up in Central IL in a town of 1000. If you lived in town, you found your own way to school. Outside the “town”, you rode the bus – 3 people per seat regardless of your age. All grades started at the same time, so one bus came by your house (not 4 as come by my house in Warren Township).

    The town of 100k 5 miles from us – within a certain distance of your elementary or middle school, you walked. Outside of that 1 bus came by your house. HS students found their way via the local public bus system or on their own.

    Walk those kids to the main road and put them on an IndyGo bus. I see plenty of empty IndyGo buses running around one behind the other on the same route on the east side.

  2. Joe Smoker says:

    I’m sure it isn’t the state policy of minimum acreage for any new school.

  3. Curt Ailes says:

    Franklin Township isnt the first suburb to look at this either. There have been rumblings that others are actively looking at it. There is also a challenge to the state Attorney General to see if what Franklin Township did is even legal, along with a lawsuit being filed by a Franklin Township resident regarding this issue. It’s hitting people now that they see what they have to live with.

    • John M says:

      It’s always dangerous to comment on a lawsuit without having reviewed the Complaint. With that caveat, this lawsuit strikes me as an uphill battle. School districts in Indiana have no obligation to provide bus transportation as a general matter (disabled students typically are an exception). I don’t think Speedway ever has had school buses, or at least in the past they did not. The same was true in Mishawaka when I was a kid. Of course, those two towns are compact, dense (compared to postwar suburbia, at least) places mostly built on a pre-WWII street grid. Unless the law changes, it’s unlikely that Franklin Township can be compelled to provide free bus service.
      .
      It appears that the argument is going to be that because Franklin Township is, along with a couple dozen other school districts, a member of the Central Indiana Educational Service Center (the cooperative to whom FT sold its buses), that allowing CIESC to charge a fee for bus service is equivalent to allowing FT to charge a fee, which is contrary to law. Even if the Plaintiff is correct about that, it doesn’t follow that FT then has to provide free bus service. It might just mean that CIESC can’t provide paid bus service, which means it can’t provide it at all. Here’s an Indy Star article:
      .
      http://www.indystar.com/article/20111103/LOCAL18/111030325/Mom-sues-Franklin-Township-schools-over-bus-fees?odyssey=tab|topnews|text|IndyStar.com
      .
      Carrie Ritchie did a nice job on this story, especially compared to the Star’s usual output on legal issues, but I really wish she had asked the Plaintiff how she voted on the referendum. Her attorney says, “that’s what taxes are for.” That’s true. But a majority of FT voters expressly decided that they weren’t going to allocate tax dollars for bus service, and now everyone is outraged that the school district cut what it said it would cut.

      • Curt Ailes says:

        Sometimes people do not view potential service cuts as such a big deal until it really happens.
        .
        You are right about the legal battle though. Maybe it turns out that bus service will remain a paid amenity like it has been this semester. The court of public opinion may lead to something better in the future though too. In the end, the township as a whole will have to decide how it views this development though. It’s an interesting paradigm though when viewed through the lens of perceived suburban school quality superiority over inner city school quality. When services such as busing to school are cut, that is one hit against. Maybe it will do nothing for the overall perception of moving to Franklin Township for better schools…. or perhaps it will. Time will tell.

  4. ahow628 says:

    [sarcasm]Won’t somebody think of the children![/sarcasm]
    .
    I agree with Richard W. I grew up (till 4th grade) in a rural town of about 1500 and there were 4 buses and they picked up everyone (K-12), dropped 6-12 at the high school and the K-5 at the elementary.
    .
    When I moved to Greenwood, it was kind of shocking to see three buses with about 10 kids on each go by 3 separate times (elementary, middle, and high school).

  5. JP says:

    Same story played over and over, people want lower taxes (e.g. capped property tax), but they don’t really want cut in services. I wish we were smarter about planning our cities, but at the end economics always does the trick. Even without any zoning restrictions, if the cost of living in the suburb rises to an unacceptable level, then you will see less of “non-planned” development.
    .
    I am not an expert on this, but it seems to me that this is just the beginning since many of these suburban neighborhoods are very recent. Is it fair to assume that the maintenance/repair expenses related to the infrastructure (low density, more infrastructure per capita) will only make the cost part of equation worse down the road?

  6. Paul says:

    If Joe Smoker is right, that there is a state-mandated minimum acreage for a new school, that sounds like a bad policy. But that’s probably a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to the impact of the general development pattern of everything else in FT and pretty much every other suburban district.

  7. Curt Ailes says:

    Well, talk about good timing. The Indiana Attorney General offered an opinion on this matter today… and he doesnt agree with what the township has done.
    .
    http://www.in.gov/attorneygeneral/files/Official_Opinion_2011-1.pdf

  8. JP says:

    School can, however, elect not to provide transportation in which case it is not doing anything unconstitutional.

    • Curt Ailes says:

      That would require them ending the contract they have signed.

      • JP says:

        Quite possibly. I am not a lawyer, but It seems to me that part of the contract is unenforceable (charging parents for the service), so I don’t know if the reminder of the contract (providing transportation) would still apply. It will be interesting to see how this gets resolved, since many other districts are probably facing the same problem.

  9. JP says:

    Although I can see where Attorney General is coming from, this seems to be complete waste of time (except to lawyers). Form over substance. Now that I had time to read the opinion, I would pinpoint to the following two sentences:
    .
    “Should a school corporation choose not to provide transportation to its students, parents may jointly contract with bus drivers to provide transportation. The contract is subject to approval of the governing body of the school corporation…”
    .
    So, back to where they started once the legal mess gets resolved. Anyway, I know this site is about urban design and not school/tax politics, so sorry if I got off topic.

  10. Joe Smoker says:

    Here are the official numbers for any new Indiana School………Now we can see why they are all suburban wrecks.

    Elementary = 7 acres plus 1 acre per 100 students (max)
    Middle/Junior High = 15 acres plus 1 acre per 100 students (min)
    High = 20 acres plus 1 acre per 100 students.

  11. Paul says:

    Joe,

    Are you saying that a 200 student elementary has a maximum size of 9 acres, but a 200-student middle middle school has a minimum size of 17 acres. Can you clarify whether these are minimums or maximums? If you have a citation, that would be great.

  12. Joe Smoker says:

    Here is a state by state list of standards. I thought it odd to have the maximum and minimum switch as well….Maybe it is due to sports facilities. A middle school is likely to include athletic venues where an elementary school may not?

    http://www.saferoutespartnership.org/media/file/issuetrak0903.pdf

  13. Paul says:

    Asinine. Except for the states that don’t have minimum requirements.

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