Austintown’s decision to offer public-transit vouchers to private-school students instead of busing them on district vehicles has led to a larger debate about school choice, say parents and officials.
And one parent has gone so far as to accuse the district of “a strong-arm tactic.”
“A parent who needs buses to get their children to school, what exactly are their options?” asked Debbie Woodford, who has a child attending St. Christine School and another attending Ursuline High School. “Send them to Federal Plaza or send them to Austintown. What’s the definition of blackmail?”
Woodford said the decision by Austintown administrators to offer Western Reserve Transit Authority vouchers for township residents who attend private schools outside of Austintown isn’t about finances.
A parent told The Vindicator this week that her child would be picked up on Mahoning Avenue at 6:35 a.m., taken to Federal Station in downtown for a layover and bus change and then be dropped off one mile from St. Christine School at 8 a.m.
Students would have to ride on existing WRTA routes, and although there already is an Austintown loop and a Cornersburg loop, a rider can only switch from one to the other at Federal Station.
A TENSE DEBATE
Woodford said Catholic education runs in her family.
“My grandmother graduated from Ursuline in 1927, and every generation has attended Ursuline High School. My decision had nothing to do with Austintown schools. It has everything to do with a faith-based education tradition in my family. I pay the same exact taxes, and in addition, I pay tuition, so I have paid twice for my children’s education,” she said.
Superintendent Vincent Colaluca maintained that the decision to offer WRTA busing was a cost-analysis one. He said he and administrators will listen to parents such as Woodford but also “have to look at the greater whole.”
“If there were 42 kids riding that bus, we won’t be able to do that. It’s all about ridership, and they’re not riding the buses when you look at cost analysis,” 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 $2.2 million annually on average for transportation and expects to save at least $40,000 with the change, Colaluca said. The cost to transport a public-school student compared to a private-school student on Austintown’s buses was not immediately available Friday but would be next week, he added.
Colaluca admitted that tension can arise between private and public schools, especially when state and federal money is allotted to private schools.
“Nonpublic schools already get public-school dollars from the federal government, which is one thing I disagree with. They take federal dollars, and I’ll tell you one of our goals in Austintown is to get kids to come back. You see the billboards advertising [Cardinal] Mooney and Ursuline high schools, and we’re doing the same thing,” Colaluca said.
In March, the district approved $35,000 to hire a marketing firm to promote the school for a one-year contract.
He said there is an “uneven playing field” because private schools can raise tuition and public schools must get voter approval.
Austintown residents who attend Youngstown Christian School were provided WRTA vouchers for the first time in the 2011-12 school year.
“We have about 25 kids from Austintown, and I think we averaged five riding in morning and maybe 10 in the afternoon,” said Mike Pecchia, president of Youngstown Christian School.
He said Austintown, at first, cut busing for Youngstown Christian, saying it was impractical, but when the school appealed the decision to the state, Austintown offered the WRTA vouchers.
“The next thing we know we get a letter from Austintown saying they were wrong, it’s not impractical, but that the Ohio Department of Education allows public transportation to allow them to meet the busing requirements,” Pecchia said.
Pecchia rode the WRTA route that his students would be taking.
“There is no way a parent will feel safe sending their kids on there,” he said.
Pecchia came up with a plan to pay for a private company to pick students up at Fitch High School, but that was rejected by Austintown officials.
Colaluca said the plan went to mediation with a regional Ohio Department of Education representative, but the district determined it would not be cost effective and learned public transit could be used instead.
THE STATE’S VIEW
The Ohio Department of Education is not responsible for approving transportation plans of local districts, said Patrick Gallaway, Ohio Department of Education spokesman.
“Those are local decisions. For example, a local district can offer [parents] payment to find their own transportation. ... In that case, if a parent contests it and asks for a review, it becomes a state board of education issue and could have a hearing,” Gallaway said.
But that case is very different from Austintown’s offering public-transit vouchers, he said.
“This really is a district’s decision,” Gallaway said.
Pecchia said the result of that decision for Youngstown Christian is that parents have to drive their children to school and have started carpooling.
“This is an issue against school choice,” Pecchia argued. “... [Colaluca] is hypocritical in fighting this fight because he benefits from school choice: Austintown is open enrollment.”
Pecchia will join Woodford and other parents of students at St. Christine’s, Ursuline, Mollie Kesner and Youngstown Christian at a news conference Tuesday to inform others of Austintown’s decision and speak out against it.
Youngstown Diocese officials also will be there to support parents, said Randy Rair, assistant superintendent for the diocese.
“The diocese’s position is that this is not a safe and not a timely way for students to get to school,” Rair said of using WRTA.
Woodford said those are her concerns, as well, and that as a taxpayer, her children have every right to use Austintown’s buses.
“We don’t dislike any of the [public] schools. We just want to exercise our freedom to choose. ... I think everybody is going to be paying attention to this decision,” Woodford said.