Members of the Baltimore City Council are speaking out against a change made by the state bus system that is causing students to miss after-school activities.
Councilman Zeke Cohen, chairman of the council's Education and Youth Committee, held a news conference Monday to voice concerns about a deal between the Baltimore school system and the Maryland Transit Administration that limits the nighttime hours students can ride MTA buses for free.
The change is leaving students without transportation after sporting events and educational after-school activities, Cohen told reporters at City Hall. He said the council will hold an investigative hearing into the matter.
"This has caused significant hardship to children and families," Cohen said. "Less than two years out of the unrest [after the death of Freddie Gray], this policy sends the message that children don't matter. … These programs are life-and-death for our kids."
Under a previous contract between Baltimore's public schools and the MTA, students could ride the buses for free from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. using a card called the S-Pass.
But the schools and the bus system recently agreed to a new deal in which the free bus rides will only last until 6 p.m.
Sean Adgerson, the MTA's deputy chief operating officer, denied that the reduction in hours was due to cost-cutting.
"Any suggestion that the MTA has changed its S-Pass policy to save money at the expense of Baltimore City's school children is simply inaccurate," Adgerson said in a statement.
He said the state has created a process for the school system to provide bus fare for after-school programs.
"However, it is the responsibility of the BCPS to determine which students get an upgraded pass," he said.
Schools officials acknowledged the problem and said they were trying to fix it.
Schools spokeswoman Edie House Foster said the district is phasing out the S-Pass and adopting the One Card, a version of the MTA's Charm Card. City Councilman Brandon Scott has pushed for the One Card as a way to allow students to carry a single card instead of four to access different services.
"Students who participate in school-based after-school programs that end after 6:00 p.m. receive MTA tickets for evening travel, provided at City Schools' expense," House Foster said in a statement. "The district is currently exploring options to meet the transportation needs of students who participate in after-school activities at locations other than their schools, but so far has been unable to identify a funding source."
Susan Malone is director of the nonprofit Wide Angle Youth Media, which teaches students about media and storytelling. She said the restricted bus hours have left some participants having trouble getting home.
"To make such a radical shift is impacting students at Wide Angle," she said. "We're just trying to make sure that we say to them, 'Transportation is not going to be a barrier for you.'"
Brian Thompson, a 12th-grader at Digital Harbor High who interns at Wide Angle Youth Media, said students weren't given much notice before the change went into effect.
"There are many students who have after-school activities, such as clubs or athletics," said Thompson, 18. "By changing the time from 8 to 6, it's making it difficult for students to get home. If they would have given the students warning, we could have maybe come up with alternatives.
"Not all students have a family member or a reliable ride home. The vast majority of us have to catch public transportation, and most of us have other stuff to do after school."
Patrice Hutton is founder of Writers in Baltimore Schools, a program that helps low-income middle-school students with literary development. Hutton said she has raised concerns about transportation home from after-school programs repeatedly with city officials but has received little response.
Hutton said she surveyed 61 students who participate in her program and found more than 95 percent said the limited hours hampered "their ability to participate in extracurricular activities."
Hutton said she's started paying for rides for students who can't afford a bus pass.
"We are spending so much of our budget now on Uber," she said. "That's not sustainable."
Joining Cohen and Malone at the City Hall news conference were council members Kris Burnett, Mary Pat Clarke, Ryan Dorsey, Brandon Scott and Shannon Sneed.
"The council needs to assert itself on these types of issues," Cohen said. "We were elected because the citizens were dissatisfied with the status quo. It's time to step up and get involved in this issue."