School district, SEPTA near deal to save free transit passes for students

Posted: May 28, 2011

Philadelphia school district and SEPTA officials are close to a deal to save free transit passes for students.

After "a very productive" meeting Friday, officials said they were optimistic the current program will not be eliminated by the cash-strapped school district.

Although details of the plan were not disclosed, SEPTA apparently has offered to give the school district more time to pay for the student passes. The school district had complained that it had to pay SEPTA and then wait more than a year for reimbursement from the state for its purchases of the passes.

The school district pays about $26 million a year for passes for 45,000 district and nonpublic students who live beyond walking distance of their schools. The state reimburses the district for about 85 percent of the money, and SEPTA gives the district a credit to cover the other 15 percent.

To save the $26 million outlay, the school district had threatened to eliminate the free passes.

"We're very optimistic that the Transpasses will continue," SEPTA spokeswoman Jerria Williams said after the Friday meeting. She said SEPTA had offered "ways we might be able to help them with their cash-flow problems."

School district chief financial officer Michael Masch said, "We're not quite there yet," but he said the meeting was "very constructive."

"We have ideas, and now we have to see whether they work," Masch said. He said the district's legal and financial staff would review the proposals over the weekend. School district and SEPTA officials will meet again next week.

Helen Gym, cofounder of Parents United for Public Education and one of several parents who met with SEPTA officials Thursday, said, "There is absolutely no reason why Transpasses should be on the table" for possible elimination.

"We believe that the threat to cut transportation is not truly a financial issue for the district, but a short-term paper accounting trick that would have long-lasting consequences," she said.

A three-sentence joint statement issued by SEPTA and the school district after the Friday morning meeting said only that the session was "very productive" and that both sides "are optimistic that finance options proposed by SEPTA offer a solution to resolve cash flow issues and save the current student Transpass system."

The school district is struggling to close a $629 million shortfall in its budget for next year. To cut costs, the district has proposed a $2.8 billion plan that would end full-day kindergarten; cut alternative schools; lay off hundreds of staff; reopen contract negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and other district unions; reduce full-service meals; cut funding for art, music, and gifted education; reduce budgets for individual schools by an average of 13 percent; and increase class sizes and the number of students who are assigned to school counselors.


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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