YOUNGSTOWN - A group of parents of Austintown school children who attend private schools outside district lines vowed Tuesday to fight a plan by the district to transport their children on Western Reserve Transit Authority buses.
At a news conference at St. Christine School on Youngstown's West Side, parents gathered Tuesday morning maintaining the issue is about safety. That's because the plan calls for some elementary children to wait unsupervised at the WRTA terminal downtown and to walk more than a mile to St. Christine's after being dropped off by the transit authority bus.
Scott Schulick, chairman of the Ursuline High School Board of Directors, said parents of private school children in the district are exercising their rights to send their children to a private school, and he noted those families still pay taxes even if they do not send their children to Austintown schools.
''Our students are legally entitled to timely transportation,'' Schulick said. ''The Austintown school district is morally obligated to provide them with safe transportation.''
Austintown Superintendent Vince Colaluca said because of a decrease in state funding, the district had to find ways to cut costs wherever they could. He said there are 24 students who attend Ursuline, St. Christine's and the Mollie Kessler School who are bused. He said it costs $2,700 per student per school year for them to be bused. The changes would take effect at the beginning of the school year in August.
The district has said it intends to continue busing students to Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Joseph School, which is inside the township lines. By contrast, that cost is only about $633 per student per school year, Colaluca said.
''That's a huge difference in costs,'' he said.
About a month ago, school officials notified parents that district buses would no longer transport students who live in Austintown to the out-of-district private and charter schools, saying it was a way to cut costs.
''We had to find ways to make adjustments, and that goes back to the state (cuts),'' Colaluca said.
But Schulick said the move affects only a tenth of 1 percent of the district's budget, and it places children in danger.
''The only issue is that of safety,'' Schulick said.
The district intends to pay for vouchers for students to ride WRTA buses, meeting their legal obligation to transport the students. Under state law, public school districts still are responsible for getting private-school students to school.
Colaluca said school officials will meet with WRTA authorities to see if other routes can be found, and he noted that there may be a WRTA stop right next to St. Christine's. He said safety is a concern, and all WRTA drivers have to have a CDL like district bus drivers.
The proposed plan also calls for Ursuline High School students to wait a half-hour downtown, then be dropped off at the McGuffey Plaza and walk nearly a mile up McGuffey Road to Ursuline.
That plan calls for students to be dropped off at McGuffey at 7:50 a.m., but the school day begins at 7:45 a.m. at Ursuline.
Karen Gerchak, a parent who has two children at St. Christine's, said the issue is one of safety also. For those who say the parents should be responsible for transporting their children on their own to a private school, Gerchak said she and her family have paid taxes to the district for years.
''I pay taxes in Austintown,'' Gerchak said.
Nicole Kent Strollo, who has two students at Ursuline, said she is not against the WRTA, but their buses are not designed for the safety of school children. She said she chose to have her children attend Ursuline because she wants them to receive a faith-based education.
Schulick said Colaluca has met with officials at the diocese and will meet with them again next week. He said if a solution is not found, the parents will keep working until one is.
''This fight is only beginning today,'' Schulick said.