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Loss of Dewey bus passes spurs Oakland school district to revamp system

on September 2, 2021

Many students at Dewey Academy can now afford to ride the bus again. However, the future of the bus pass program depends on the Oakland Unified School District’s ability to make sure students who need help paying for transportation are able to get it.

During an impassioned school board meeting on May 26, parents and teachers successfully fought to restore funding to cover bus fares for many Dewey Academy students. The majority of students there rely on the crucial passes for transportation to school. A survey by one of the teachers showed that more than half wouldn’t be able to get to school without a pass. 

Dewey Academy typically funds youth transit passes at a cost of $24,500 annually. During a budget review, the district’s procurement department flagged that cost, saying it signaled several alarms in the system. That caused the department to deny Dewey’s request for funding. This year, Dewey was only able to spend $6,800 on passes, and unable to issue them to all students who needed them.

“Although it might not seem like much, not having access to public transportation not only affects students financially but also physically and mentally,” Dewey student Eleonor Portillo said at the board meeting.

Dewey Academy is one of eight alternative education schools in the district that targets youth ages 17 and up who are at risk of not graduating. The high school is in central Oakland but its students come from all over the city. Most qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch and are students of color.

“Bus passes are a measure of safety, it’s an academic ticket to graduation,” said social studies teacher Chloe Erskine, who conducted the survey. “A good number of students have graduated because the bus passes got them to school.”

At the board meeting, Brooklyn Williams, a school site council member for Dewey, encouraged the board to implement a policy that would ensure students could get to school safely. She noted that the stakes are particularly high for Dewey students.

“Over the 15 years I’ve been at Dewey, we’ve always been able to provide bus passes to all of our students and not have to pick between who gets a bus pass and who doesn’t,” Williams said. “Obviously, we know that the [alternative education] population is already going to be challenging to get them back to school, so we need to make sure we handle this as soon as possible.” 

Each Oakland school has its own school budget to meet the needs of students. Dewey Academy allocates a portion of its budget for bus passes. But not every school does, making the system uneven and prompting the red flag.

District officials said their intention was not to deny passes to Dewey students but to revamp the system. They said they are working with AC Transit to devise a fairer way of distributing passes to students. 

OUSD is mandated by the state to fund transportation only for students in special education, and foster and homeless youth. That costs as much as $15 million per year, with only $5 million of that provided by the state. However, the district has a partnership with AC Transit for supplemental line service, which increases the number of buses traveling to and from school sites. The Alameda County Transportation Commission also provides free transit passes to students at 14 OUSD schools.

Kim Raney, who is in charge of transportation and other operations in the district, said the goal is to work with AC Transit to get bus passes for all Oakland middle- and high-school students.

The district doesn’t have the budget to cover those transportation costs, added John Sasaki, OUSD communications director.

“The more money that we end up spending, say, on bus passes for general-ed kids, the more money we take out of the classroom. And first and foremost, we are educating our kids,” he said.

When the transportation plan is finalized, it will be presented to the school board for approval.

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