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Austintown student busing dispute heats up

Published: Sat, June 9, 2012 @ 12:09 a.m.

Private-school parents criticize district over public-transit decision

By Ashley Luthern



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.


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 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.


1youngstownsteve(81 comments)posted 3 years, 4 months ago

Austintown residents - DO NOT VOTE FOR ANOTHER SCHOOL LEVY until this arrogant board is voted out and the selfish, hapless adminstrators are fired!

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2RightofLeft(43 comments)posted 3 years, 4 months ago

Your arguments are without substance. You chose to send your children to a different school. No one forced your decision. With that decision comes personal responsibility to accept all the ramifications of that decision. Private schools get public money to operate. You are selfish and out-of-line to expect the public schools to also pay for transportation services to your private schools. That is ludicrous. Let the private schools also accept all the responsibilities of plying their profit motivated trade. Private schools should be expected to provide transportation for their students just like public schools. Accept all the reponsibilities of the choices you have made.

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3PagansRock(6 comments)posted 3 years, 4 months ago

Speaking as a WRTA passenger, we don't want these children taking the public bus. We have too many kids using it now. A lot of which are ignorant and disrespectful. Of all the fights that have broken out at the WRTA station 98% of them have involved the kids that take the public bus now. I have seen elderly people leaning on walkers waiting to board the bus only to have a bunch of rude kids cut in front of them as if they weren't even there. They have taken up all the seating leaving that same elderly person to stand until other adults or the driver makes one of them move.
As far as what thethinker says, it's true, I will walk all the way down to the Phar-more building to use the bathroom if I have to, otherwise I wait till I get home.

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4MomTo2(1 comment)posted 3 years, 4 months ago

Maybe if Austintown didn't have such a high rate of open enrollment students we wouldn't have to send our kids elsewhere. I have 2 small children, raised in Austintown, and am thoroughly considering sending them elsewhere. Austintown is so concerned about finances and sports and not enough about education. What happened to the nice safe Austintown we once had??

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5NoBS(2321 comments)posted 3 years, 4 months ago

Ohioption - Youngstown city high school kids rode public transport buses into the 70s. Until I got my driver's license, I rode the city bus to high school. As you said - we bought a pass good for several rides, or we paid coins into the box.

Funnelling young suburban kids through the sewer that is the WRTA terminal - terrible idea. Letting non-public-school kids use WRTA buses that we taxpayers already pay for - good idea.

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6squirrel123(2 comments)posted 3 years, 4 months ago

In the 70's there was a bus that transported those of us who had moved from the city to the burbs of Austintown. This bus picked up children who attended St. Brendan's, Holy Name and St. Anthony's. The bus was full and the ride was long to ensure we all got to our schools at correct times. There was no way that individual buses would have ever of worked to get us to these schools. Is there is a reason why something of this style cannot work again. Yes it will take work and effort to coordinate schedules and logistics but would it not be worth it?

I do also find it amazing that $35,000 was spent on a marketing campaign that is nearly the same amount of money saved by not providing busing. This makes no sense to me. Many people send their children to catholic schools to continue the teaching of their faith. It has nothing to do with the quality of education offered in their backyard. There is no amount of marketing that is going to change that belief.

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7soaringeagle8495(4 comments)posted 3 years, 4 months ago

Okay I am new to this area and completely stunned that this is even an issue. Come on now. I went to private non religious school straight to college in Maryland and my parents had to get me there and back. The case was made that a parent pays taxes and opts out of the public school system then they should be given a concession of public bus transport for their child to private school. Sorry but I do not have kids in school anymore yet my property and other taxes pay for the schools. Do I then say okay I do not have a kid in school so I want to not have to pay for some other service I use? Sorry but the parent made a decision for private school and it should be the parents and the private schools getting the kids back and forth. This is not anti education or anti children it is simple common sense.

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8LAURIE(3 comments)posted 3 years, 4 months ago

If the students are being provided a voucher for payment to WRTA, and WRTA offers door to door service, then why is that not an option, just have the little shuttle pick up the kids for each school. 10-20 kids should not be that big of a problem to solve. Or use the voucher money to hire a private company to transport. They certainly don't need a big, full size bus to transport.
In the late 70"s Youngstown students to Ursuline had to ride WRTA buses, at first it was a mess, then the buses did circulate through the neighborhoods and then went directly to UHS, there was no layover/transfer Downtown, it only lasted a year, maybe 2, then it went back to City school buses.

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9gmailuser(6 comments)posted 3 years, 3 months ago

@Laurie: I would like to set the record straight about some things. First, Austintown schools has NOT been getting Ursuline students on time for at least the last four years, that is why ridership is so low. The actual number of students from Austintown to St Christines's is 50. There are 30 students going to Ursuline.
I would also like to clarify another misconception:. Austintown Parochial students DO NOT have "their own" bus route.They are picked up with the kids going to Fitch and they then wait at Fitch for their bus to take them to school.
Last, and MOST IMPORTANT point is this is not safe for many reasons! National Transportation Safety Board has 36 safety requirements for school buses that public transportation buses don't have-there is a reason we say school buses are safer and built with the purpose of transporting small children.

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10ANTIYOUNGSTOWN(251 comments)posted 3 years, 3 months ago

That might work in New York but in this town very few people will allow their children to be unsupervised in downtown Youngstown. Heck, obviously most adults don`t want to be there.

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11Education_Voter(973 comments)posted 3 years, 3 months ago

Be in downtown Youngstown...or be in the bus terminal waiting for a bus?

Had lunch at an Italian restaurant on the same street. It looked like plenty of people wanted to be there.

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12ANTIYOUNGSTOWN(251 comments)posted 3 years, 3 months ago

At the bus terminal.

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