End of the line for city-funded transit passes for Portland Public Schools? Yes, please: Editorial Agenda 2017

(Mark Graves/Staff)

It seems odd to praise Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler for wanting to slash the city’s contribution to a program that provides transit passes free to Portland Public Schools high schoolers. While Wheeler reluctantly agreed to include money for the passes in his proposed budget for the coming year, he’s unwilling to commit to funding in the future. Considering how thousands of students rely on those TriMet passes for getting to and from school, much less around the city, some might well view Wheeler as Portland’s early frontrunner for Grinch of the Year.

But Wheeler’s proposal – and commissioners’ support for altering the contribution – are positive signs for anyone who values equity and fiscal discipline, both of which are ignored by the city’s longstanding practice of chipping in for these passes. The city is using taxpayer dollars to help only students in PPS, not students in other Portland school districts such as David Douglas or Parkrose, both of which have far greater percentages of low-income students. And the city is helping bear a responsibility that belongs squarely on the shoulders of PPS, a separate governmental body whose general fund is projected to be almost $100 million greater than the city of Portland’s in the coming year.

It’s worth noting just how these free bus passes came about in the first place. The state mandates that school districts provide yellow-bus service for students who live 1.5 miles or farther from school. Because PPS schools are well served by the existing TriMet system, the district has in the past fulfilled that requirement by giving free bus passes to qualifying students.

But the program has been supersized over the years to provide those passes to all Portland Public Schools high school students, regardless of family income or distance from school. At first, a tax-credit program administered by the state helped cover the cost. When that program dried up, the district and TriMet turned to then Mayor Sam Adams to take on some of the cost.

Adams agreed. The arrangement continued under Mayor Charlie Hales, even though his spokesman acknowledged at the time that providing bus transportation for PPS students isn’t a city responsibility. It is apparently easier to pick up the tab than to take a difficult stand against something that is meant with the best of intentions.

But best intentions don’t excuse bad policy decisions. This is more than just finicky border-tending. Such extracurricular expenditures deplete a city treasury that’s already stretched thin in covering core functions as affordable housing, public safety, road maintenance, traffic-safety improvements and other services on which Portland depends. The city government last year had to seek a gas tax from voters to find money to fund road improvements. Wheeler’s proposed budget includes another ambitious proposal to issue bonds to help catch up on deferred street and infrastructure maintenance. These are the lengths to which the city must go, belatedly, when leaders forget what they should focus on.

Thankfully, Wheeler has company from his fellow city commissioners in at least altering the current set-up for 2018 and beyond. They shared his discomfort with the inequity of a taxpayer-funded program that benefits PPS students regardless of financial need, while ignoring low-income students in other Portland school districts. At the same time, the mayor called for a review of TriMet’s actual costs of administering the program, which the transit agency has pegged at $3 million a year.

A lot can happen in a year. Maybe Portland Public Schools will re-envision the program to only provide for low-income students living 1.5 miles away or farther. Maybe a new program will emerge that is deserving of city funds for fulfilling a citywide responsibility. And maybe Wheeler and other city commissioners will get cold feet about yanking city support.

But every time Portland leaders take on initiatives outside their core mission, it siphons away money, attention and ultimately, the city’s ability to deliver on what people expect. Mission matters. It’s time for all our elected leaders to recognize that.

– The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board

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