Sitting front and center in the Frederick Douglass High School auditorium, Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen spoke passionately about the need to make the bus system more accessible for public school students.
In his first legislative oversight hearing as the council’s Education and Youth Committee chairman on Jan. 5, Cohen welcomed students, parents and residents to voice their opinions over a recent change between Baltimore City Public Schools and the Maryland Transit Administration that cut the evening hours students can ride buses for free.
“For a city that has been rocked by civil unrest, it shouldn’t take this amount of strife or work to do the right thing by our children,” Cohen told the JT. “If we’re not thinking about transportation, especially public transportation, we can kiss our good academic outcomes goodbye. If we’re not thinking about good public education, we can kiss our safety goodbye.”
According to a previous contract between city schools and the MTA, students could ride buses for free from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. using a card known as the S-Pass. This past summer, however, a new deal was struck, limiting such rides from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The change officially went into effect more than a month ago, around the same time the new City Council was sworn into office. About 1,500 to 2,000 students are directly dealing with the fallout from the decision, city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said, many of whom participate in sporting events and educational after-school programs or hold part-time jobs.
With the Baltimore School System facing a $129 million deficit in next fiscal year’s budget, some feel the city simply can’t afford to cover all the extra trips for students, putting the onus on the MTA.
“The elimination of the 6 p.m. service window represents a potential safety threat to those who have been historically troubled during this time period,” said Santelises, who added she was not involved in the last contract process in May 2016. “I understand that after nearly a year of contract negotiations, city schools were left with no alternative except to cut off service time for most students at 6 p.m. and pay additional fees to the MTA on a per-trip basis for any students traveling in the previously covered hours.”
City schools have contributed an additional $200,000 to cover individual rides for students enrolled in school-sponsored programs on top of the $5-plus million that is set aside in the total budget. Nonprofits that work with students, meanwhile, and students who work, attend the public library and take part in other activities, are currently on the hook for the $1.70 fare to ride the bus after 6 p.m.
Some, such as MTA deputy chief operating officer Sean Adgerson, argue that the S-Pass system, which started in 2009, was designed with the intent to transport students to and from school in a prompt fashion. In addition, Adgerson added the MTA already subsidizes students’ trips with a 50-cent discount from the standard $1.70 rate, meaning students were receiving about two million free trips per year.
While Adgerson said students should be able to ride the bus at a discounted rate, he feels the MTA, which is also navigating a budget deficit, is not in a position to pick up the bill.
“What we do is provide a ‘school tripper.’ Essentially, what that does is when schools are going in and when schools are being dismissed, we beef up our service for a specific route that may service a school,” Adgerson said. “So most of our services are around when schools are letting out, not throughout the entire day.”
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a Democrat who represents Southwest Baltimore’s 14th District and serves as vice chairwoman of the Education and Youth Committee, told the JT she is focused on helping broker a viable solution similar to the previous system. Under ideal circumstances, Clarke was hopeful a new agreement could have been hammered out before the Maryland General Assembly convened on Wednesday.
Nonetheless, a new deal had yet to be reached as of press time.
“We have too much to do to go backwards,” Clarke said, “and this current policy we have is going backwards. So students are now basically being deprived of the enrichment they get [in additon to] their classroom education. It’s a win-win to restore the hours and multiple transfer uses that enable our young people to participate in after-school activities, because those programs help them prepare for their futures.”
For now, Cohen said he does not plan to introduce any legislation to address the issue. He noted he would only resort to doing so as a last-ditch effort since the MTA is an agency controlled by state law.
Instead, he believes the effort city students have put forth in their fight will be enough to force a resolution.
“As a former educator, I know that the kids in this city are brilliant, resilient, strong and powerful,” Cohen said, “and that’s something that does not often get portrayed outside the classroom. So that’s why I thought it was important that young people drive this hearing, that we do it in a high school, that we do it publicly and that our young people be the messengers. At the end of the day, it’s not me who’s going to need to ride the bus to my after-school program — it’s these students.”
Jay Gillen has taught in city schools for 29 years and is a facilitator for the Algebra Project, a youth-run math literacy and advocacy nonprofit. He argued the public transportation system in Baltimore in general is racially and socioeconomically inequitable, leaving families of city school students at a major disadvantage.
“Everything like laundry, grocery shopping, errands and doctors’ visits, getting to and from work and school take a longer time,” Gillen said. “Many families simply cannot give their children a ride to school, to an after-school program, to check on grandma or to a community meeting. … So when a policymaker or an influential decision-maker says they would like to address institutional racism, here’s how they can help: Make public transportation available to all Baltimore City public school students at no cost.”
Nathan Nieves is a sophomore at Patterson Park High School in Cohen’s district who attends an after-school leadership program for Latino students, Mi Espacio, through Casa de Maryland. Since the implementation of the new policy, Nieves has had to leave the program early every day to catch the bus.
“I have to miss out on the activities and days where Mi Espacio goes on field trips. Some days I can’t go unless I can find someone to give me a ride,” he said. “For some kids, it’s not a problem, because they walk home or have parents who can pick them up. But my mom works all day and can’t give me a ride.”