By Ashley Luthern
A committee of concerned parents says its Tuesday news conference is only the opening salvo in a fight against Austintown’s proposal to offer public-transit vouchers to private-school students instead of using district vehicles.
“Stick with us and fight this fight. ... We cannot let them win because if they win, who’s next? Canfield? Boardman?” said David Gerchak, a member of the Austintown Parents for the Safe Transportation of Students Committee.
He was one of several speakers who addressed a crowd of more than 80 people at St. Christine School.
The committee provided route maps of current Western Reserve Transit Authority services and explained that students as young as kindergarten age would have a layover and bus transfer at Federal Station downtown.
The final stops would be about one mile from St. Christine and Ursuline schools, requiring students to walk and be late to class.
“We are legally entitled to timely transportation, and Austintown is morally obligated to provide safe transportation,” said Scott Schulick, chairman of the Ursuline High School Board of Directors.
Austintown’s proposal would affect students at St. Christine, Ursuline and Mollie Kessler beginning this fall. Youngstown Christian School went through the same process with Austintown schools last year. School officials and parents there fought the decision and said none of their students uses WRTA.
Superintendent Vincent Colaluca said he recognized parents’ concerns and has set a meeting with WRTA officials to try to develop a public-transit route that would not have a downtown transfer.
But he stands by his original decision because “they aren’t riding our buses.”
Last year, Austintown received reimbursement from the state to transport four St. Christine students out of the 62 Austintown residents who attend; 17 from Ursuline of the 77 who attend; and all three Austintown students who attend Mollie Kessler.
The reimbursement is not enough to make up the total cost, and Austintown spends about $2,700 per student annually to transport private students to schools outside the township, Colaluca said.
It costs $623 per student annually to transport students in the district and those who attend St. Joseph and Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Austintown, which is why the district will continue busing there, he said.
Nicole Kent Strollo, a parent of Ursuline students, said at the news conference that Austintown had low ridership to Ursuline because the buses were consistently late.
“The buses don’t get them there in a timely manner, which is why students who attend Ursuline don’t ride the bus. ... I still appreciate the service and safety associated with it. I truly hope they decide to make the safest decision,” she said.
Colaluca said lateness has been a problem, and he approached Catholic schools about changing start times, but those discussions didn’t go anywhere.
Debbie Woodford, who has children attending St. Christine’s and Ursuline, said Colaluca is willing to “compromise our children’s safety” and criticized the board of education for what she termed its silence on the issue.
School-board member Harold Porter attended the press conference but declined to speak per board policy that only the board president can speak for the board.
President Dr. Tom Stellers said that board as a whole has yet to discuss the proposal, but as an individual, he said it’s his understanding there are “continuing discussions.”
“It’s really difficult because we keep hearing to run our schools like a business, and then we do and we get slammed for that, too. The big issue really is state funding for education in Ohio, and in this particular case it’s the very low ridership of Youngstown private school students, which is fewer than 30 kids,” Stellers said.
Stellers added that county residents support WRTA, citing approval of a sales tax to generate revenue for the transit service.
Parents said throughout the news conference that while they value WRTA, it is unsafe for their children to ride it unsupervised to get to school.
“Yes, we care about kids’ safety,” Colaluca said. “But we try to meet all needs of all our students.”
Cost is a consideration, he added. The district spends about $2.2 million on transportation out of its $40 million general fund and is trying to cut costs without affecting academics as it loses $2 million in state funding.
Colaluca said administrators reorganized all bus routes, lowering transportation time, and as a result, cut back on hours for bus drivers, who subsequently lost their benefits.
Austintown could eliminate high-school busing, like several other Mahoning Valley districts, but that would affect 1,000 students compared to 24 students the public-transit proposal affects, he said.