The City Council’s Youth and Education Committee held its first meeting last evening at Frederick Douglass High School to discuss recent changes to the S-Pass program. The S-Pass is a deal between the MTA and the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) that provides public transportation to students to and from school. From 2009 until just last month, the pass allowed students unlimited rides between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., but changes brokered in July that went into effect last month limit students to rides until 6:00 p.m.
Students, parents, residents, and council members are concerned that the changes put afterschool activities and work out of the reach of students who now have to make sure they swipe their passes at the bus farebox before 6 p.m. BCPSS has kicked in $200,000 to pay for individual rides for students enrolled in school sanctioned activities, but that leaves nonprofits footing the bill for students working with them, and students who work, check in on grandma after school, visit the library, or just want to hang out with friends are left scrounging for change to get home after 6 p.m. That extended hours were a result of youth activism in the first place has left an especially sour taste in many mouths: here we are fighting again for something we already won, many argued.
As each councilmember made a statement, it became clear that the council wants the old S-Pass back. Mary Pat Clark, who was instrumental to getting extended hours in the first place, was particularly sharp, arguing that from the looks of things, the city is now getting less service for the same price, with our kids left out in the cold—literally. Jessica Marquez, a college-bound senior at Baltimore City College High School, spoke passionately about the life-changing effects of afterschool programs, made accessible by the S-Pass. Her parents were forced to quit school in the second grade to go to work, but she is headed to Washington College on a full ride scholarship, made possible by programs off campus and the transit to get her there. S-Pass changes risk devastating material effects on students like Marquez, and that reminder set the tone for the rest of the meeting.
BCPSS CEO Sonja Santelises spoke passionately about the need for every student in Baltimore to be able to show up to school every day, ready to learn. She emphasized the importance of afterschool activities for students, whether school-sponsored or not, and argued that the limited S-Pass creates serious safety issues for students who are now forced to walk long distances in the dark when activities go past 6 p.m. The school system, already in fiscal crisis, can’t afford to pay for the extra trips for all students, and she urged the MTA to revert to the old system.
Sean Adgerson, Deputy COO of the MTA countered that the MTA already subsidizes student trips with a 50 cent fare reduction, and the old S-Pass system meant students were receiving upwards of two million free trips per year. Schools were asked to pay for two trips per student, but with unlimited rides until 8 p.m., the MTA was footing the bill for a whole lot of free rides. With a state mandate to pay for 35 percent of transit costs through fares, all those free rides add up. Adgerson agreed that students should be able to ride the bus, but MTA can’t be the agency to pay for it. MTA’s got a fiscal crisis, too.
The council then launched into questions to both Adgerson and Santelises, and it was clear that the consensus on the council and in the audience is that the old S-Pass has to come back if we really take our students and their needs seriously. Council President Jack Young asked a question he was texted from an audience member: these buses are running anyway, so what does it really cost the MTA to let these students hop on
The rest of the meeting was dominated, rightfully, by student voices. One after another told stories of peers dropping out of sports and activities, having to leave nonprofit off campus programs early, finding themselves stranded miles from home with expired passes, learning the terrible lesson that co-curricular activities aren’t worth it. Destiny Fitzgerald, a sophomore at City Neighbors High School, captured the general feeling well: “It feels like the city is telling us we don’t really matter.”
Students made it clear that they are engaged and organized, and they are not going to let this go. Everyone—including the MTA—was in agreement that students need free transportation options. The question remaining is who is going to pay up. Nathan Nieves, a sophomore from Patterson High School, talked about having to leave Casa de Maryland’s Mi Espacio program early every day. “I’m trying to do my part by seeking out the positive, by learning how to help my community. I hope Baltimore City does their part too, to make sure I get home safe.”
The meeting closed promptly at 5:50 p.m. so students could get that 6 p.m. swipe for the bus home.