City Heights youths chanted “more transportation, better education” outside of the San Diego Unified school board meeting Tuesday night. They were there to support a proposal from school board members Richard Barrera and Marne Foster that would provide free city bus passes for low-income students at some area high schools.

Alfredo Mendez was there to tell the board members how the “youth opportunity passes” would benefit him and his family. He’s a senior at Hoover High School, one of the campuses participating in the pilot program.

Because he’s 18, his family has to scrape together $72 a month to pay for a city bus pass so he can get to class and internships. That’s a major expense for his mom, who makes minimum wage. Paying for the $36 youth pass wasn’t much easier.

“She would probably have to decide between buying my sister some shoes and buying me a bus pass,” Mendez said. “It’s really unfortunate that it has to come to that — deciding one thing from the other.”

The school board voted unanimously to lift some of that burden.

The school district will pay $150,000 toward 1,000 Metropolitan Transit System passes to be distributed to students at risk of dropping out or failing because they lack transportation. The passes will be available at Hoover, Crawford, Lincoln and San Diego high schools next school year.

The plan is contingent on the city allotting $200,000 for the project. Mayor Bob Filner was on hand at the meeting and said the project will be included in his April 15 preliminary budget.

Barrera said the decision puts the district in a position similar to what Mendez’s mom faces each month.

“We’re strapped. We’re trying to solve a deficit, but when you’re strapped and you have to make decisions, you’ve gotta make some priorities,” Barrera said. “So what the school board is saying tonight is, ‘It’s a priority of ours, even in difficult financial times, to make sure that our kids can get to school and back.’”

The decision comes several years after Barrera learned educators at San Diego High were collecting money from staff, parents and anyone else who would give to cover the cost of transit passes for students who couldn’t buy their own. Barrera said about 70 percent of students at San Diego High take the trolley or bus to school.

The three other schools participating in the program also already have high numbers of kids using public transit, Barrera said.

In City Heights, most school bus routes transport students to campuses outside of the neighborhood. Students there have been campaigning for free student bus passes since 2010. Barrera, Filner and City Councilwoman Marti Emerald even signed pledges saying they would procure the passes.

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her directly at or 619.550.5665.

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Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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