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Freeport bridge project forces Leechburg district to bus Catholic school students

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Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, 1:01 a.m.
 

Shifting land masses didn't make the Leechburg Area School District closer to a pair of Catholic schools in Harrison.

The reconfiguration of the convoluted bridges in Freeport did.

As a result of the Freeport Bridge work, the public school district is now required to bus students to Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Elementary School and St. Joseph High School.

Brianna Finley, 6, of West Leechburg was “super excited” to ride the bus to her first-grade class at Blessed Sacrament. But her mom, Nicole Tempest, was nervous enough that she followed the bus all the way to school on that recent first day.

“She's my only child, and I'm a little protective. It was hard for me to let her go on the bus,” Tempest said. “I'm happy about it now. I was just really nervous at first.”

Having busing “does make it a lot easier in the morning. It's nice to have,” she said.

The travel distance was reduced by several thousand feet because of changes to the bridge ramps, said Melvin Criswell, a senior civil engineer supervisor with PennDOT.

Traffic no longer has to go into Freeport to get to Freeport Road and Harrison.

“You do not have to access Freeport at all,” Criswell said. “It does shorten the ride.”

Pennsylvania public schools must provide transportation to non-public students of the same grade level provided for their own students. For instance, Leechburg Area is not required to bus kindergarten students to non-public schools because it does not bus its own.

The non-public school must be nonprofit and located within 10 miles of the district's boundary, measured by the nearest public road, according to the state Department of Education.

Before the bridge work, the distance from Leechburg Area to the schools was slightly more than 10 miles and no transportation was provided, Business Manager Mark Lukacs said.

Lukacs said he got a request this summer to bus a student and was told the distance was within the 10-mile limit.

“I went out and measured the distance, and St. Joseph's now falls within the 10-mile limit requiring Leechburg Area School District to provide transportation to that non-public school,” he said.

“When PennDOT rebuilt the bridge system in Freeport, it must have reduced the mileage distance from (the district's) West Leechburg border to St. Joseph's.”

The woman who made the request, the grandmother of a first-grade student at Blessed Sacrament, declined to be interviewed on the record for this report.

Providing the busing could cost Leechburg Area about $18,000 a year, Lukacs said. The state reimburses 60 percent of the cost.

“It's a benefit to the families,” Lukacs said. “It's a responsibility we bear, and there's no problem with that.”

Three Leechburg Area families have children attending Blessed Sacrament; two students attend St. Joseph, according to the schools.

Having busing available could help boost enrollment at both schools, said Heather DeSanto, admissions director for Blessed Sacrament.

“There are families for whom their only restriction is they needed transportation,” she said.

Tempest agrees.

“My understanding is there were a lot of families that chose not to send their kids there because of busing. I know it will definitely open it up for those families who for one reason or another can't get their kids there,” she said.

“It's a great thing for the school and families. It allows families who want to send their kids there to send them.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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