Controversy over busing in Austintown was avoidable

There is no denying that public education in Ohio is confronting major financial challenges. Significant reductions in state funding, along with the expansion of charter schools and voucher programs, are forcing districts to reduce spending — without affecting academics.

The growing number of systems in state-designated fiscal watch and fiscal emergency illustrates the scope of the problem.

Tensions are high, which means that lines of communication among school boards, administrators and the public, especially parents, must be open at all times.

A lack of communication can result in battle lines being drawn, as they are in Austintown, where parents of children attending schools outside the district are strenuously objecting to a busing plan unveiled recently by Superintendent Vincent Colaluca. The headline over the front-page story of The Vindicator June 7 that first made public the details of the plan served as a warning of things to come: “New bus plan to send kids on WRTA.” It was accompanied by the subhead, “District will no longer bus students to private schools.”

The story ignited a firestorm of protest from Austintown parents who send their children to St. Christine, Ursuline High and Mollie Kessler schools. Superintendent Colaluca has been accused of placing young children in harm’s way if they have to ride WRTA buses, and of blackmailing parents into returning their children to Austintown schools.

Parents are also upset that the board of education has been largely silent on the issue. Board members have said the WRTA plan was developed at the administrative level. In other words, the superintendent and his staff are responsible.

Be that as it may, the battle could have been avoided had the administration included the parents and the affected private schools in the planning.

This is not the first time the Austintown Local School District has decided not to use the system’s buses to transport students outside its borders. Last year, it did so with those attending Youngstown Christian School, and the outcome has added fuel to the spreading fire of controversy.

YCS students from Austintown were provided WRTA vouchers, but because of safety concerns, parents decided to drive their children or to carpool.

Mike Pecchia, president of Youngstown Christian School, said he rode the WRTA route his students would be taking and concluded, “There is no way a parent would feel safe sending their kids on there.”

Cautionary note

Adding to the upheaval is the cautionary note from James Ferraro, long-time executive director of the WRTA. Regardless of the routes that are ultimately developed to prevent students from having to take one bus to the downtown terminal and then transfer to another to get to school, Ferraro made it clear that public transportation means exactly that — public. WRTA buses cannot be reserved for students, and they do not have the safety equipment, such as flashing lights, that school buses feature.

Although the Ohio Department of Education has said that busing decisions are the purview of local districts, we would hope that the state superintendent, Stan Heffner, would assign a member of his staff to mediate the flare-up in Austintown.

Busing is an expensive proposition, but we don’t think that putting young children in harm’s way by requiring them to utilize public transportation is what Republican Gov. John Kasich and the GOP controlled General Assembly had in mind with they cut funding for public education.

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