More than 250 students, parents, teachers and community supporters packed Frederick Douglass High School auditorium last week, ensuring that the Baltimore City Council’s Education and Youth Committee heard and saw the discontent with the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA)’s current bus policy for Baltimore City Public Schools students.  

Zeke Cohen, the newly-elected councilman for  District One and chair of the Education and Youth Committee, opened last week’s hearings with student voices to demonstrate the negative impact of the newly curtailed MTA S-Pass policy, which reduces the hours that students are able to ride public transportation for free.

Jessica Marquez, a senior at a Baltimore city high school, started the afternoon’s testimony by voicing the concerns of many of her peers, parents and other community supporters who spoke.

“It creates a serious problem for students like me who utilize after-school programs to prepare for college. I have shadowed doctors, conducted medical research at Johns Hopkins University and more,” she said.  “ opportunities require hours of dedication after school.”

Last spring, the MTA and Baltimore City Public Schools renegotiated the contract for student city bus service. Under the new contract, students can ride the bus twice a day with the last ride commencing before 6 p.m.  Previously, under the old contract, students could take an unlimited number of rides from 6:30 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m.

“The current contract with MTA and city schools provides less service over fewer hours the same amount of money that we paid under for the previous three-year contract,” schools CEO Sonja Santelises said in her testimony before the Council committee.

Santelises added that the change poses a risk to thousands of Baltimore students.

“The elimination of the 6-to-8 p.m. service window represents a potential safety threat to 1,500 to 2,000 of our young people who have historically traveled under that time period,” she said.

But MTA Deputy Chief Operating Officer Sean Adgerson countered that MTA’s bus service to BCPS riders is already a subsidized service, and MTA ended up picking up more of the cost than it could afford with the previous contract.  

“The service is there. The service has to be paid for – it’s not free.  We don’t offer free transit,” he said.  

Adgerson said students who currently utilize MTA service after 6 p.m. must be charged on a per-ride basis that had to be guaranteed by a third party.

“You’re talking about a $5 million gap simply in terms of the service that is used versus what is billed,” said Adgerson, explaining his estimation of the true gap in funding to the City Council committee.

Santelises said that BCPS would need an additional $200,000 to pay for the same service students received last year and the system does not have the additional funds. BCPS is currently operating at a $129 million deficit.   

Jay Gillen, board member of the Baltimore Algebra Project, spoke after one of his students about the systemic challenges brought on by the reduction in MTA service.

“When the already very bad and inequitable transportation arrangements of the state are exacerbated by making it harder for Baltimore City young people to get to places, we are reinforcing one of the institutions that racism works with,” Gillen said.  

For Gillen, the resolution to the current crisis is simple: “When a policymaker or an influential or a wealthy citizen says they would like to address institutional racism, here is a very specific example that we can point to.  Make public transportation available to all Baltimore City Students at no cost.

“A dollar, two hundred thousand dollars, I don’t care if it’s a million dollars, we need to invest in our children” said Ebony Cooper, teacher at Northwestern High School and parent of seven, during the open mic time at the end of the meeting.

And with more than two dozen parents and community supporters waited in line after Cooper for their chance to make their voices heard, Councilman Cohen apologized and abruptly adjourned the meeting exactly at 5:50 p.m. because of “the very policy we are fighting to change.”

“Students,” he said, “had to get to the MTA terminals before 6 p.m. for the ride home.”