Student activists protest Providence busing policy

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As a candidate, Jorge Elorza said his plan to provide more bus passes to high school students was “a matter of priorities, not cash.”

As mayor, he’s learning cash dictates priorities.

A group of student activists known as the Providence Student Union marched to City Hall Tuesday in an attempt to “demand Mayor Elorza keep his campaign promise” to reduce the minimum distance for high school students to receive a free city bus pass to two miles.

The student union published a YouTube video Saturday asking Elorza to provide more bus passes.

Student transportation in Providence first became a political issue in early 2014 when the same student group hosted politicians and stakeholders on a 2.96-mile walk from Phoebe Street in the city’s Wanskuck neighborhood to the Providence School Department on Westminster Street to highlight a policy that required students to live at least three miles from school to qualify for a bus pass, the longest distance of any school district in the state.

As a result, the Providence School Board committed to reducing the distance over two years, first to 2.5 miles at the beginning of 2014-15 school year and then to two miles by the start of the 2015-16 year. Former Mayor Angel Taveras included funding for the move to 2.5 miles in his final budget.

Dan McGowan/WPRI 12
The Providence Student Union marches through City Hall on May 26. (Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

But as Elorza and school officials scrambled to close a projected $34.7-million shortfall in the budget year that begins July 1, the $680,000 needed to reduce the distance to two miles was deemed too steep.

Aside from the bus passes, Elorza’s proposed school budget has come under fire from school board members for failing to invest in technology and more social workers throughout the city’s schools. While state aid has been on the rise because of the state education funding formula, the mayor’s budget keeps the city’s appropriation to the school department at $124.9 million for a sixth straight year.

On the campaign trail last year, Elorza regularly reminded residents he was the first candidate to call changes to the city’s school busing policy. His plan to reduce the walking distance for high school students still appears on his campaign website.

The mayor said he would negotiate cheaper bus passes with the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) and work to add sidewalks and signage for walkers who live less than two miles from school.

“Denying students who live between 2-3 miles away from school bus passes impacts learning, impacts health, and impacts safety, and our low-income communities are disproportionately affected,” he said in his proposal.

In a statement Tuesday, Elorza said he remains “committed to reducing the walk-to-school radius and fixing the school assignment process so fewer students are facing long commutes.” He said he plans to meet with the group to discuss ways to get students to school during inclement weather and exploring a partnership with RIPTA.

“I have walked with these kids, I understand the difficulty they face, and I look forward to working together to address this issue,” Elorza said.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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