Under Armour, Ravens donate money to restore free after-school bus rides for city students

Under Armour and the Ravens are helping to keep bus rides free for Baltimore students.

Under Armour and the Baltimore Ravens donated a combined $75,000 to restore free bus rides for Baltimore public school students for the rest of this school year, city officials announced Tuesday.

The money, added to $26,000 raised by families, will allow students to ride anywhere free on Maryland Transit Administration buses until 8 p.m. — two hours later than they can now. Students had been allowed to ride free during those hours until late last year when the schools and MTA rolled out a new fare card.

The extended hours will begin Monday and last through the rest of this school year, City Councilman Zeke Cohen said.

"Even though this policy seems small, its impact has been large and dramatic for our families," said Cohen, chairman of the City Council's Education and Youth Committee.

Council President Bernard "Jack" Young brought together the businesses and nonprofits to raise the money.

"It was a very long and tedious journey to reach the point where we are," Young said. "This is just the beginning. We're going to have more nonprofits stepping up to the plate and we'll have more philanthropic organizations stepping up to the plate to give us more money."

Under Armour donated $50,000 and the Ravens gave $25,000, officials said. Under Armour said it has been in discussions with city, state and community leaders since January to find a way to fill the funding gap.

Two weeks ago, members of the City Council sold brownies, Rice Krispies treats, cinnamon rolls and chocolate chip cookies at a bake sale to raise part of the money to restore the rides and call attention to the issue.

Since the free bus rides were scaled back late last year, students have quit after-school programs and parents have scrambled to arrange pickups, Cohen said. The school district continued to cover fares for students traveling from school-sponsored activities. But others participating in outside after-school programs and volunteer work saw their free rides end at 6 p.m.

"One young woman described getting stuck miles away from her house and having to walk home through dark and dangerous streets," Cohen said. "We had parents tell us they needed to borrow their neighbor's car in order to essentially rescue their kids."

Most days, Shantay Guy said, her teenage son hustles from after-school studies to catch the bus in Northeast Baltimore, then rides the No. 22 across town, anxious to transfer at Mondawmin before 6 p.m. when his free rides end. It's a commute with little room for error.

"He has run into a couple of occasions when no one was able to get him and I've had to pick him up from Mondawmin because the time ran out," Guy said.

It wasn't a problem until this school year. Previously, students could ride anywhere for free from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. using a card called the S-Pass. The school district and MTA, however, rolled out smart fare cards last year, and paid-for trips after 6 p.m. were restricted to particular school activities.

"There are students who would not be able to participate in these important activities if the free service stopped at 6 p.m," Ravens President Dick Cass said in a statement.

The school district only paid for evening trips to its sponsored activities, and MTA officials estimated they were giving away more than $2 million in free rides a year. State law requires the MTA to collect at least 35 percent of its expenses in providing trips.

The one-time $100,000 cash infusion restores service for now, but it is not enough to maintain rides free through next year, Cohen said. He said the same business leaders and city, school and MTA officials will reconvene to find a long-term solution.

"Now, it's critically important that all of the stake holders come back to the table in order to solve the longer-term challenge," he said.

But for now Guy won't have to worry about her son getting home while she works long and unpredictable hours as executive director of Community Mediation, a Waverly nonprofit that works to diffuse conflicts between everyone from gang members to landlords and tenants.

"If my son is staying after school, I'm not necessarily available," she told members of the city council during a hearing last month.

She won't have to worry now.

"This is the Baltimore I love," Guy said. "A Baltimore that shows our kids that we got their backs."

Baltimore Sun reporters Carrie Wells and Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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