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Denver Public Schools bus system leaves many students arranging their own way to campus

Denver’s 92,000 public K-12 students have more than 200 schools from which to choose when considering the best academic fit — a variety hailed nationwide. But critics say Denver Public Schools’ transportation system unfairly narrows those options for thousands of families.

“DPS is frequently held up as a national example for its portfolio of schools,” said Matt Samelson, who is with the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks education issues. “But choice without transportation is no choice at all.”

For example, more than 9,000 teens — nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — do not qualify for DPS transportation to and from campus because they have chosen a school other than their neighborhood one. Such a choice comes with a cost: arranging — and perhaps paying — for transportation, which hits low-income families especially hard.

More than 65 percent of DPS students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, Samelson said. “A monthly (Regional Transportation District) pass is cost-prohibitive” for those families.

Sharon Battle considers herself lucky. Her 17-year-old son, Charles, gets a free transit pass from Montebello Career and Technical High School, which provides bus passes for students with good attendance.

Without the free pass, she isn’t sure how her son would get to and from school and work every day.

“I’d like for him to get to school and work and not worry how he will get there,” Battle said. “I’m hoping one day all high school students will be able to get transit passes, so they can go to work, do internships or go to the rec center,” she said. “It will help kids pick the best schools. It will help the whole choice program.”

DPS officials say they are trying to expand transportation services to address the inequities faced by low-income families.

The district’s Success Express shuttle-bus system was launched in northeast Denver six years ago to get K-12 students to and from high-performing schools in other neighborhoods. The buses run every 15 minutes in the mornings and afternoons, much like regular commuter buses, stopping at participating campuses, including charter schools.

Success Express buses about 3,000 students to and from 35 schools. The district is testing a similar system with two routes in west Denver for middle school students.

Busses head out on their routes ...

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Busses head out on their routes at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal Nov. 10, 2017.

In October, the district also agreed to spend the full $400,000 out of a $56.6 million tax increase approved by voters in 2016 to buy more bus passes for high school students. Superintendent Tom Boasberg originally earmarked $127,000 of the $400,000 to pay for transportation for special-needs students. But parents blasted the idea, prompting Boasberg to use the entire $400,000 for high schoolers.

An all-encompassing transportation system that would ensure all DPS students could get to and from the school of their choice is still out of reach, officials said.

“It’s just a complex issue,” said Dionne Williams, deputy director of Children’s Affairs for the city of Denver. “It has a lot to do with budget constraints and constraints on services.”

Four entities — Donnell-Kay Foundation, Together Colorado (a community activist group), DPS and the city of Denver — offered to fund free or low-cost monthly RTD passes for all DPS high school students last spring. RTD declined the offer and asked the city and DPS to join an ongoing study of fares in the RTD system. A systemwide youth pass is being considered, RTD spokeswoman Christine Jaquez said.

RTD also is studying last summer’s pilot program that provided 1,500 MyRide cards to Denver teenagers ages 14-19. The cards, purchased by the city of Denver for $90,000, were loaded with at least $50 in rides. Some passes were loaded with $100 in rides. RTD helped distribute the cards at transit fairs throughout the city, Jaquez said.

At least 1,400 of the cards are being used. Tracking their use will help the city and RTD come closer to understanding the traveling habits of teens, which will aid in developing a transit plan for them, she said. “Right now, RTD doesn’t track the transit habits of youth like other riders,” Williams said. “We’d like to get information to tell us how they use the bus and how often.”

But Samelson fears there are too many hurdles to developing a comprehensive transportation plan for all DPS students. RTD, he said, is more concerned with gathering fares than providing service to the city’s youths and poor residents. And the confusing nature of DPS’s transportation policies — in which there are exceptions to nearly every rule — also hinders a comprehensive plan.

DPS also allows budgeting at the school level, which resulted in high schools last year spending more than $400,000 from their own budgets on RTD passes and tickets.

“By not addressing this problem systemwide, you have some 20 high schools spending money out of their own budget for transportation,” Samelson said. “It just seems they could come up with a better, more strategic system than this balkanized effort.”

Superintendent Boasberg admits the system is stretched too thin. “The demand and desire for transportation in our district vastly outstrip the resources we have for transportation,” he said. “Simply put, the equation is badly out of balance.”

DPS has more charter and innovation schools (117) than it has traditional district schools (104), a variety of options that encourage students to look beyond their neighborhood school.

The district’s “portfolio” of schools has earned praise from school-choice advocates, but the expense of stretching transportation options to all of those schools is too costly, Boasberg said

“At the end of the day, Denver Public Schools is not a transportation agency,” he said. “We want our focus to be on the classroom, and that’s why we want to partner with RTD to get the maximum efficiency and best use of taxpayer dollars.”

The district spends about $26 million annually to transport more than 31,700 students, including elementary and middle school students who attend their neighborhood school. Meanwhile, transportation costs have risen 30 percent over the past five years, Boasberg said, and the district has 50 fewer drivers on staff because they have been drawn to better-paying jobs in private industry.

“We’re fighting market forces here, and someone who wants to earn more and doesn’t want to deal with sometimes special conditions faced by school bus drivers will usually go elsewhere,” Boasberg said.

The district’s transportation woes aren’t limited to students taking advantage of school choice. Nearly 4,400 high school students who attend their local school must arrange their own transport because they live a “walkable” distance — within 3 1/2 miles — from campus. Students who live farther away qualify for district-provided transportation. The district also provides transport to students learning English as a second language and to those who attend certain specialized schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

East High School freshman Marcos Cortes, center, enters his second RTD bus, #40, on his way home from school Nov. 14, 2017.

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

East High School freshman Marcos Cortes, center, enters his second RTD bus, #40, on his way home from school Nov. 14, 2017. Cortes takes two RTD busses to get to and from school.

Marcos Cortes, 14, who lives a little over 2 miles from East High School, hoofs it to an RTD bus stop with some of his classmates every day. He works for his uncle’s landscaping business so that he can afford the daily $4 bus fare it costs to get to and from school.

At the end of a recent school day, Marcos and his friends crowded an RTD shelter waiting for the No. 20. Marcos will ride for a mile or more, hop on another bus and walk about a mile before he makes it home.

As they stand at the shelter, a No. 20 bus flies past Marcos and his buddies, apparently too crowded to take on more passengers. The teens, hoping to catch a different bus, trudge a couple of blocks to another RTD shelter.

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