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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, August 09, 2017 1:00 am


Prudent planning

Area schools' foresight forestalls Muncie-like chaos

Muncie students returned to school a week ago today – then they were told to stay home.

For two days, classes were canceled as school officials struggled to fix a transportation crisis. To save $1.5 million, Muncie Community Schools replaced its longtime bus contractor with a Michigan company unfamiliar with the area. Many of its drivers also quit days before school was scheduled to begin. The first day of school began with students left at bus stops or arriving home hours after dismissal time, prompting the two-day shutdown to regroup.

The unimaginable scenario is an important reminder. Unpopular budget-cutting measures – school closings or restructurings, schedule changes, transportation cuts and more – are proposed to avoid more painful cuts later on. Once a school district falls behind financially, the repercussions are harmful to students, the district and the entire community. 

There's plenty of fault to go around in the Muncie school district's financial mess, beginning with property tax changes approved by the Indiana General Assembly that disproportionately affected some communities. But the bottom line is that school leaders did not make the tough decisions required to live within the limits placed on them. 

The effect of tax caps on school transportation budgets and other property tax-supported funds forced changes on area school districts years ago. East Allen County Schools closed two elementary schools and created K-12 campuses. Southwest Allen County Schools reduced its bus service areas, adding sidewalks near Woodside Middle School and Covington Elementary for students who would be walking instead of riding a bus.

Northwest Allen County Schools adjusted school schedules in 2015 to move to a two-tiered bus system, wherein drivers cover separate routes for secondary and elementary schools. NACS warned parents it would have to eliminate bus service altogether if Fort Wayne's annexation proposal had prevailed.

Fort Wayne Community Schools also made extensive changes to save transportation and bus replacement dollars two years ago. School operating hours were adjusted to accommodate a three-tiered busing schedule that would allow more students to be transported with fewer buses. The financial situation wasn't dire at the time, butSuperintendent Wendy Robinson told parents the changes had to be made then so families wouldn't be subjected to busing upheaval year after year.

FWCS reduced its fleet by 52 buses, requiring an additional 7,000 students to walk, bike or catch other rides to school. The district continues to transport students who live a prescribed distance from their neighborhood school, but it now enforces the no-transportation zone policy established for those who live closer.

The changes weren't popular. They created child-care problems for many families. They disrupted afterschool activities, including athletic practices and game schedules. The changes revealed gaps in Fort Wayne's sidewalk infrastructure that will be met, in part, with a city tax increase.

But school leaders have been effective in warding off the disruption Muncie families experienced last week. Courageous decisions by Allen County school officials also have prevented the damaging organizational changes Muncie has had to make, with three elementary schools shut down this fall and one of the district's last two middle schools set to close next year. Before an emergency financial manager was appointed by the state, Muncie schools were reportedly facing a nearly $38 million deficit by the end of 2019.

No administrator or school board member wants to close buildings or eliminate bus service, but school funding changes over the past decade have forced difficult decisions. Allen County residents can be reassured that sensible steps have been taken to avoid the worst circumstances a school district – and community – might have to face.