Skyla Williams, a kindergarten student, commutes into Manhattan.
Five mornings a week, Skyla and her mother, Autumn Alston, ride a bus from their home near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx to Harlem Link Charter School on West 112th Street‑a bus ride Alston said is made possible by Skyla’s free student fare.
The elimination of free student MetroCards was voted through last month by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is scrambling to eliminate a $383 million shortfall in its budget. The cuts have ignited furious protest from local parents, students, school administrators and city politicians, who say that poorer students, especially from Harlem, will be left unable to get to school.
“I will be affected,” Skyla’s mother, Autumn Alston, said. “How is she going to get to school every morning?”
On Friday, the MTA announced revisions to its original plan that would restore service to a number of bus routes and one subway line, but included no changes to the student MetroCards cut.
“It’s enough to make a family move to the suburbs, where the thought of charging students to get to school is unthinkable,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer in a statement. “We need to do better. Invoking a ‘kid-tax’ is no way to balance the budget, especially during a recession,” he said.
Still, local politicians expressed confidence that the students who rely on free MetroCards will soon be in the clear. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Christine Quinn, city council speaker, have both denounced the authority’s decision.
“They’ll go back,” said city council member Gale Brewer (D-Upper West Side). “Those MetroCards will be back for students as long as we keep up the protests,” she added.
Students remained concerned that paying to get to school would leave attendance rates to suffer.
“If you think about it, half of the students might drop out,” said Michelle Delgadillo, a tenth grade student at the Academy for Social Action, on West 129th Street in Harlem. “How do you want us to get an education and learn if we can’t make it to school?”
Eighty percent of students at Future Leaders Institute Charter School on West 122nd Street in Harlem use the free cards to travel to school each day, according to chief operating officer Patricia Charlemagne.
“This is really going to have a major impact, because a lot of these families don’t have the resources to drive their kids to school or the means to pay for a MetroCard,” said Charlemagne.
The MTA announced on Friday that it would be holding eight public hearings to get community input on the service changes that are also a part of the authority’s plan to close the budget gap.
MTA Chairman Jay Wilder said in a statement, “While the cuts in funding to the MTA require painful actions, we have worked hard to limit the impact on customers.”
According to some local politicians, the MTA is using the cuts as a bargaining chip—since student transportation is seen as essential, they are counting on the city or state to pick up the tab.
“Now the MTA is saying that we need to move it back under the education budget, so this is their negotiating strategy to make that happen,” said Sarah Morgridge, chief of staff for city council member Robert Jackson, who represents Morningside Heights. “The fact of the matter is that our whole education system is based on the precept that students will have access to travel, particularly at the high school level,” she added.
Sheldon Fine, a member of Community Board 7 and a former public school educator, emphasized the vulnerability of the city’s poorest students to such a measure. The emotional impact of the MTA’s announcements, he said, must not be ignored.
“I’ve been told not to worry about it. I think the fact that it was proposed, it’s out there, it’s a part of the plan, even if the intention is to restore the funds, that alone is a horrible way to hurt those who are struggling to begin with to get an education and to have their kids get an education. There are many things that are proposed that are restored; how many can you restore?”
“Why play with the emotions and the fears of the most vulnerable parts of our population?” Fine asked. “I think it’s cruel and sends a message that the government doesn’t understand the realities of everyday families in New York,” he added.
Currently, more than 500,000 students use the free MetroCards provided by the MTA. Under the proposal outlined in December, only half of students’ fares would be covered beginning in September 2010, and the subsidy would be eliminated altogether in 2011, according to an MTA statement.
“To present a balanced budget despite losing hundreds of millions of dollars in State funding over the past two weeks requires measures that are painful to the MTA, our employees and our customers,” said MTA Chief Financial Officer Gary Dellaverson in December.
Students and parents seem ready to fight until a solution that would restore free student services is agreed upon. The last three weeks saw multiple protests, including a student walkout, directed at the MTA’s controversial decision.
“I’m willing to go as far as I can go to fight for that,” Alston said.