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Boston schools may delay transit switch for seventh-graders

Seventh-graders in the Boston public schools might get to take yellow school buses to class for one more year as administrators move to slow the arrival of a controversial requirement that middle-schoolers use mass transit.

This fall, it appears that only eighth-graders will be required to make trips to and from school on the MBTA; seventh-graders probably will not have to make the transition until the 2015-2016 school year.

Interim School Superintendent John McDonough said at a School Committee meeting Wednesday that a longer phase-in would ease the qualms of some families.

"This may be a good way to implement a good policy, by beginning with MBTA service for the eighth grade this year, and then seventh and eighth grade in the following school year," McDonough said.


He said the School Department will offer more information about the plan by the end of this month.

Still, the plan has caused wariness from the agency that would be responsible for transporting the students. Beverly A. Scott, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, met with Walsh this week to discuss logistics.

Scott was relieved to hear the School Department's plan would be rolled out on a slower timetable, but she continued to express concern about accommodating an increase in young riders on an already overtaxed transportation system.

"We are a public transportation operator; we are not a yellow school bus transportation service," Scott said. Extra buses would not be an option, she said, and it would be challenging to find extra Transit Police to help with security.

But, she added, "at the end of the day, we will absolutely support them in every way we can."

The plan to put seventh- and eighth-graders on public transportation was pitched by school administrators as a cost-saving move but sparked controversy from the moment it was proposed. Parents, teachers, and children's advocates said they were concerned the plan would put children at safety risk, increase truancy, and adversely affect low-income children whose parents do not have the option of driving them to school.


The transportation proposal was approved as part of the school budget passed by the City Council last month on a 7-6 vote. Opponents on the council argued that the plan was pushed through too quickly, and that a lack of details called into question whether the move would end up saving money for the School Department.

At the time of the vote, Mayor Martin J. Walsh offered a compromise he hoped would mollify opponents on the council, limiting the change to eighth-graders in the upcoming school year. But council opponents declined to negotiate because they felt the plan was rushed, said Councilor Matthew O'Malley, one of the dissenters.

"I'm appreciative of the fact that many of the concerns of teachers and parents and kids seem to be addressed," O'Malley said Thursday, in response to news that the department would delay the public transit requirement for seventh-
graders. "But there's still many, many concerns about the implementation and mechanics of this plan."

Under the new plans, an estimated 2,400 children will be added to the T system in the fall, rather than the 4,600 initially planned. Originally, the strategy to give all seventh- and eighth-graders T passes was estimated to save the city $8 million per year.

But with only eighth-graders expected to use the T for school travel, the reduction in students using school buses will be too small to allow for a significant cutback in buses and labor; the district is expected to save just $2 million in the upcoming year.


Boston public schools spokesman Brian Ballou said the department is still seeking ways to come up with the $6 million needed to close the gap in the budget.

The MBTA will probably offer free passes to parents who plan to ride with their children on the first few days of school to help them learn to navigate the commute, Scott said.

"We're working with [the Boston public schools] as to how to do that," Scott said.

There will be some exemptions from the mass transit requirement: Children will be able to use a school bus if they have a younger sibling at the same school who qualifies for corner-to-corner service, Scott said. They will not have to take the T if their expected commute would be longer than one hour each way or if the trip would require three or more transfers.

Additionally, some children may be granted safety waivers, though school officials had not established requirements for such exemptions.

"We're trying to figure out under what circumstances the police would recommend a safety waiver be granted," Ballou said.

Scott said she had recommended that students be exempt from taking the T to school if they had to make a transfer. She said she worries that children will have to start their days too early to ensure they reach school on time, especially given the chance of delays.


Only 68 percent of MBTA buses arrive on time, she pointed out.

"I'm not proud of it, but that's what it is," Scott said, "so we need to talk honestly about timing."

The MBTA has no plans to provide passes to students who are late because of a delayed bus or train.

More coverage:

Middle-schoolers to ride MBTA under new city budget

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com.