District will no longer bus students to private schools
By Ashley Luthern
Tarra O’Hara is worried about getting her 8-year-old son to school next year.
Her son is one of about 10 St. Christine School students who ride Austintown school buses now but will be provided Western Reserve Transit Authority bus vouchers in the fall to get to and from school.
The district sent out letters about one month ago to parents of students at St. Christine School, Ursuline High School and the Mollie Kessler School, all in Youngstown, saying it no longer would use district buses to transport students who live in Austintown to private schools outside the township.
Instead, the district will pay for vouchers for students to ride WRTA buses. Under state law, public school districts still are responsible for getting private-school students to school.
“I pay taxes like everyone else; I feel that my son has the right to ride the school bus. I want [school officials] to overturn this,” O’Hara said.
Board President Dr. Tom Stellers said the decision, which was an administrative, not board, action, “has to do with finances.”
It costs about $45,000 to employ one bus driver, he said, adding that 22,000 parochial students in Ohio use public transit to get to school.
Austintown residents who attend Youngstown Christian School were provided WRTA vouchers this year with no problems, Stellers said.
St. Joseph and Immac-ulate Heart of Mary School students will continue to use Austintown school buses because that school is within township borders.
O’Hara has been told by the Youngstown Diocese that her son will get picked up at the Austintown Walmart at 6:35 a.m. and at Federal Station in downtown Youngstown by 7:05 a.m. He will get a connecting bus at 7:40 a.m. and be dropped off at the corner of Arden Boulevard and Canfield Road at 8 a.m. — the time school stars, O’Hara said.
He then will walk about one mile to the school.
“You’re dealing with children that are minors and who will be completely unsupervised in such an unsavory area,” O’Hara said.
Superintendent Vincent Colaluca defended the WRTA route, saying the district’s transportation director and an Ohio Department of Education regional representative have reviewed and approved it.
“We couldn’t do it if they would be late to school,” he said.
In the 2011-12 school year, Austintown transported fewer than 20 Ursuline students and between three and 10 St. Christine’s students each school day, he said.
The district spends about $2.2 million annually on average for transportation and has been trying to trim that cost.
“While transportation is an important part of education, it takes money out of the classroom. We’re in survival mode. We can easily save $40,000 doing this. ... We understand that they are taxpayers. But they are paying taxes to hold a seat here in the district,” Colaluca said.
James Ferraro, the WRTA executive director, said he has not been contacted by Austintown school officials about the change. Youngstown school officials were interested in something similar, but they, too, have not met with WRTA, he said.
“It would be very different, as a public-transit provider, to have the same recognition as a school bus does with flashing lights and a stop sign,” he said.
“Also, by federal guidelines the route has to be open to the public. It has to be published on time tables and must accept whoever wants to come on board,” he continued.
Ferraro said if Austintown had contacted WRTA, there might be a possibility to create a “tripper” route, one that goes directly from Austintown bus stops to a school, rather than having a downtown connection. That “tripper” route would still have to be open to the public, however, he said.
The student fare on WRTA is 75 cents one way and 25 cents for a transfer, Ferraro said.
“A school bus is a school bus. Public transit is public transit. And they were separated as such for a good reason,” Ferraro said.