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Ind. district that ended bus routes faces lawsuit

By Charles Wilson
Associated Press / November 2, 2011

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INDIANAPOLIS—An Indianapolis woman who is suing a suburban school district that stopped running free school buses could be joined by thousands of other parents, her attorney said.

Lora Hoagland filed the lawsuit against the Franklin Township schools Tuesday in a Marion County court. Her attorney said he plans to seek class-action status for the suit, which could then be on behalf of about 8,000 families in the school district.

The district sold its buses this summer to an education cooperative that now provides transportation. Hoagland is disabled, but like thousands of other parents she drives her two sons to and from school because she can't afford the nearly $50-per-child monthly fee.

Hoagland, 38, at first wanted the district to place her two sons, ages 10 and 13, on a special needs bus because they both have serious medical conditions, she said. But after that fight went nowhere, she said she decided to expand her effort "so that everybody gets the buses back. It's not just me, it's everybody."

If a judge grants the lawsuit class action status, it would be on behalf of "anyone affected by the decision to stop busing," Hoagland's attorney Ron Frazier said, whether they drive their kids to school or pay to have them ride a bus.

"The gist of it is really to get the buses running again," Hoagland said. The suit seeks an injunction ordering the district to resume bus service without charge. It also seeks unspecified damages.

The lawsuit first reported by WRTV argues that the cooperative is an agent of the school district and that Indiana's Constitution makes it illegal to charge for bus transportation. The attorney general's office, which already said it was illegal for the school district to charge parents directly, is currently reviewing the setup.

"It is our belief we are on solid legal ground with the system that we have put in place," Superintendent Walter Bourke said. He said parents contract directly with bus drivers, with the Central Indiana Educational Service Center as a party, and that the school district isn't involved.

But Frazier said the system is just a dodge by the district to get around a provision of the state constitution that requires free public school tuition.

"It tried to do through the back door what it couldn't do through the front," Frazier said. "They're trying to circumvent the constitution."

Parents are stuck in the middle, he said, because education is mandatory and they have to get their children to school, one way or another, or they can face criminal charges.

"A lot of the people who this is affecting live paycheck to paycheck," Frazier said. "And that kind of money to them is food on the table and paying the electric bill."

Hoagland and Frazier argue that the school district, which has blamed the cuts on shrinking property tax revenues, could dip into its $17 million rainy day fund to pay for transportation. "Why is it not being used?" Hoagland asked.

Bourke has said that the $2 million a year that transportation costs, along with other capital expenses, would deplete the fund within a few years.