Adapting to new laws pose challenges

LAPEL — Frankton-Lapel Schools is leaning toward a change in bus service because of a new state law set to take effect next year.

Also, a new piece of legislation could affect district plans to upgrade its facilities because of the measure’s financial impact.

Effective Jan. 1, 2018, pre-kindergarten children being transported on school buses must be restrained in child safety seats. With 45 to 60 Lapel preschool students, 30 to 45 of whom travel to school by bus, this poses a fiscal challenge for the corporation.

The safety seats cost about $80 each at the low end, and retrofitting bus seats can cost up $350 to $400 each.

Another requirement under this law is that a seat located behind a car seat must be left empty. This can create an added responsibility and time commitment for the bus driver as the board deems it impractical to hire an additional bus aide for each bus that transports pre- students.

These potential added costs would create burden on the corporation’s transportation budget, and the board arrived at the conclusion that, beginning in the fall 2017, the district likely will no longer offer bus service for pre- kindergarten students.

This potential course of action would not affect special education pre-kindergarten students, who are transported separately.

While no action was taken by the board, a decision will be made soon.

Superintendent Robert Fields said while this is a policy change the corporation does not like, it is the only way that makes practical sense; he said parents would be notified as early as possible.

“I think, really, the decision was made tonight,” he said. “We’ll have to notify people who are going to start preschool this fall, in all our notifications, that we are not going to transport preschool kids next year.”

Fields added he expects the final decision to be made at the March meeting of the school board.

With other potential action by the Indiana General Assembly this year, the board also will re-examine a proposal to install solar panels at Lapel Middle School and Lapel High School as a way to curb energy costs in the long term.

Debate is taking place at the state level on SB-309, a bill that proposes to outlaw the practice of “net-metering,” a way for consumers to be compensated at retail rates for excess energy they produce from renewable sources and send back to the grid.

As things stand, the school corporation’s proposed $4.8 million investment in solar power would net a savings of almost $2.8 million in the first 20 years, with continued savings in the years that follow. The board had yet to determine a possible location for the middle school, but at the high school, the panels would be located on 2.3 acres north of the baseball field and, with the creek and trees as a shield, would not be visible from the school.

The board conceded that, while the bill may not pass this year, it is likely the energy companies will continue to lobby for its passage in years to come. Fields said he would consult with other districts that have already gone solar, such as Sheridan, to gather more information before the board acts on the matter.

Passage of the bill would muddy the waters for the school district.

“The problem is that the project would not be a cash-neutral or a positive cash situation for us,” he said. “We’d have to do it through some sort of debt service or bonding issue. Instead of being able to sell that electricity back to them dollar for dollar, we’ll only be selling it back for about 30 cents. It wouldn’t be nearly as good a deal for us.”

In other Frankton-Lapel Schools business:

• Health insurance expenditures for 2016 were up from the previous year at $2,354,686, an increase of $145,000 from 2015. The new year got off to a rough start as the corporation spent $412,989 on health expenses, up $51,125 from January 2016.

• Teacher performance grants were issued to qualifying educators in the corporation. Teachers who achieved ratings of “effective” or “highly effective” received a bonus of $305.

• The board approved several gifts for Lapel Elementary School. The South Madison Community Foundation contributed $2,000 for Best Behavior Intervention and gave $1,000 to the robotics club, which also received a $250 contribution from Applebee’s. Jenica and Jonathon Rollins donated $40 to the school’s general fund.