Thomas Poston, 17, rides the trolley from San Diego High School to his home in Encanto. / Photo by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego

School buses don’t come cheap for parents or for San Diego Unified.

The school district charges parents $500 for bus rides to school, and sends those who pay late to a collections agency.

Over the past seven years, the district has slashed its ridership by nearly half, and the program is facing further cuts.

School buses are more than just a matter of convenience for parents. For some students, it’s a matter a safety. They may see or fall victim to crimes as they walk home, and neighborhoods cut up by interstates or lacking proper sidewalks put children at risk of being hit by cars or trolleys. With more school buses in San Diego Unified rolling to a permanent stop, getting kids to school will likely become a concern for a growing number of parents.

There is, however, another way to get kids to school – one that doesn’t rely on district-run buses – that other cities have successfully implemented: leveraging the city’s existing transportation system to provide free or low-cost bus passes to students.

Nearly two-thirds of San Francisco Unified students use public transit to get to school and back, for example. The school district and municipal transportation agency partner to provide free passes to students whose families live at or below the median income level for the Bay Area. Five school districts in the Seattle area give students passes that allow them to access buses, streetcars and light rail. In Sonoma County, college students ride the bus for free.

Monthly youth fares for San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System cost $36 a month – half the cost of a monthly pass for adults. But even $36 a month can be prohibitive for cash-strapped families. And MTS isn’t budging on those fees.

“Services have real costs,” said Rob Schupp, communications director of MTS. Youth passes represent about $6 million in annual fare revenue, he said. If MTS’s budget lost $6 million, the agency would have to increase fares for other riders or reduce services.

“It all boils down to the amount of public subsidy that MTS receives,” Schupp said. Los Angeles is now up to a two-cents-on-the-dollar sales tax to support public transit – about 16 times the amount MTS receives from sales tax, he said.

But MTS and San Diego Unified did at one point create a small-scale program to provide certain students with free bus passes.

San Diego Unified school board president Richard Barrera said recently that around 2010, he started hearing stories about principals raising money to purchase bus passes to get students to school on time.

In 2012, then-Mayor Bob Filner prioritized the idea of helping students obtain free bus passes. The city of San Diego kicked in $200,000 for the program, and the school district put up $150,000 to make it happen.

In 2013, the school district launched a nine-month pilot program that provided roughly 1,000 bus passes to students at Lincoln, Crawford, Hoover and San Diego high schools.

But the program had lackluster results, according to an MTS evaluation. Depending on the school, anywhere from 9 to 52 percent of students who received passes didn’t actually use them. And MTS saw indications some students used them to skip school or violate curfew.

Program advocates had pitched the program, in part, as a way to improve attendance rates. But by the end of the pilot, MTS saw no indication attendance rates improved much.

Diana Ross, executive director of Mid-City CAN, a City Heights nonprofit that campaigned for the program, said the pilot was beset by internal problems that made it difficult to gauge its success.

“It was a mess,” Ross said.

MTS required the district to purchase the passes upfront. But funds the city had agreed to kick in got delayed, and students didn’t actually have passes in hand until October – after the school year started.

There were other problems, too. MTS required the school district to prove the passes weren’t being used fraudulently, which created an extra layer of compliance for schools. And MTS would sometimes shut off the passes for seemingly arbitrary reasons, Ross said.

“All those barriers created a lot of issues for collecting good data, but also for the kids themselves. I had one kid who showed up at my house and said his pass wasn’t working and he needed help,” Ross said.

Despite the challenges, a study compiled by San Diego Unified and Mid-City CAN showed the program had more favorable results than the study MTS put together.

Students given transit passes were less likely to be victims or witnesses to crimes than those who walked to school, according to their data. They were less likely to be bullied or sexually harassed on trips to or from school. They had better attendance rates than students without transit passes.

Regardless, Ross said the value of student transit passes shouldn’t be dependent on the results of a study.

“The evaluation shouldn’t matter that much in the end. Other cities that have done this didn’t have to do some crazy evaluation to prove its value. They did it because they believed in it and they wanted to see youth have opportunities,” Ross said.

It was never the school district’s intention to tie the passes to attendance rates, Barrera said.

“We never made the claim that attendance rates was the key metric to focus on. We made the argument that it was a benefit for students and their families. I think attendance rates are too narrow a metric,” Barrera said. “(Transit passes are) helpful for students who are riding the bus or trolley to school. But in reality, if that’s all we cared about, we could have probably gotten kids to school for cheaper than what we were paying for transit passes. The idea was students who had the passes would have more mobility, they’d be able to access different parts of the city, they’d become future transit users. There was a value beyond just getting young people to school.”

Either way, the program is gone, and there’s currently no movement to bring it back. Barrera said the school district would be interested in reviving it or a similar program, but it wouldn’t have the funds to do it without help from MTS or the city.

Voters could also approve a sales tax measure that could fund transit passes for students, Schupp and Barrera said.

“One way or another, San Diego as a region is going to have to prioritize the issue and make a decision to fund it if it wants a more robust transit system,” Barrera said.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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