Baltimore lawmakers and business leaders have come up with a short-term fix for a disruptive program cut that limited hours for free public transit rides for City Schools students.
Yesterday, Councilman Zeke Cohen and other lawmakers announced Under Armour and the Baltimore Ravens had agreed to pay $50,000 and $25,000, respectively, to cover a funding gap for broadening the hours for the so-called S-Pass program.
This past December, Cohen brought attention to a major change in the program, a partnership between Baltimore City Public Schools and the Maryland Transit Administration, that allows students free rides to and from after school activities. Since 2012, students were able to use the S-Pass to ride for free from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. But at the beginning of this school year, the Maryland Transit Administration and City Schools cut the timeframe for free rides by two hours by instead giving students a “One Card.” That card only allows for two free rides until 6 p.m.
A school system spokeswoman previously told Baltimore Fishbowl they were still covering students’ MTA tickets for evening travel, but Councilman Cohen said many families told him the change disrupted their schedules and left their sons and daughters unable to make it to extracurricular activities.
Cohen, chair of the Council Education and Youth Committee, later criticized the MTA when it paid Joe Flacco $45,000 to endorse the city’s new BaltimoreLink bus program. The MTA didn’t respond to that outcry, but it defended the change as a cost-cutting measure designed to stop students from abusing the S-Pass by taking additional free rides at the city’s expense. The estimated savings from the cuts amounted to $200,000, Cohen estimated in January.
Now, the city has just over $100,000 to help fill that deficit. In addition to the $75,000 thrown into the pot by Under Armour and the Ravens, Baltimore families raised $26,000 in private donations, including revenue from a bake sale two weeks ago.
“We believe it is important that students participating in extracurricular school activities should continue to be able to ride city buses for free until 8 p.m,” said the Ravens in a statement. “There are students who would not be able to participate in these important activities if the free service stopped at 6 p.m.”
Under Armour couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
Cohen had teased the announcement of the donations from the South Baltimore company and the franchise late last week and Monday. Yesterday, other council members and families joined him to thank them for stepping up.
“It’s truly inspiring to see that so many people care about our kids, and for that we thank you,” said Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who sits on the Education and Youth Committee. “This is a big win for our city. I’m so excited to have our kids back on the bus.”
Raekwon Redding, a junior and captain of the basketball team at City Neighbors High School, said the S-Pass hours cut had affected his ability to get to and from practice, placing additional pressure on his mother to work around her schedule or on his coach to drive him to and from practice. He thanked the City Council, the Baltimore community, the Ravens and Under Armour for bringing attention to the issue.
“It’s about more than just the bus pass,” Redding said at the announcement. “It’s about making sure kids in Baltimore have the same opportunities as students in other school districts.”
Cohen said the money should help in the short term, but that more will be needed from the MTA and City Schools to keep the longer S-Pass hours through the next school year.
“We do not want to be back here next year having another bake sale for buses,” he said. “I think we’ve demonstrated unequivocally that we need to have our kids on the bus…until 8 p.m., but we can’t do it through private philanthropy moving forward. Some of the stakeholders that we gathered are committed to coming back to the table and engaging in a conversation about how long-term, sustainably, we can keep this funding going.”