Work group to be formed to develop long-term strategy to fund passes for students in the PPS, David Douglas and Park Rose districts.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Most but not all high school students in Portland will receive free TriMet passes next school year.High school students in the three school districts in Portland will continue to receive free TriMet passes next year as regional officials work out a permanent solution to the annual funding problem.

An agreement announced Monday says all high school students in Portland Public Schools will qualify for passes, while they will only be available to low-income students and students of color in the David Douglas and Park Rose school districts. A work group will be appointed to explore long-term strategies for providing transit passes to low-income students in the Portland-area.

For the 2018-2019 school year, PPS will pay two-thirds of the approximately $2.9 million cost of providing passes to all high school students, while TriMet will contribute $1 million. TriMet will also contribute about $100,000 toward the cost of passes for David Douglas and Parkrose students. The districts will pay the rest of the costs from Portland funds left over after a late decision to help pay for them in the current school year.

"We're happy to partner with the City of Portland as well as the Portland Public, David Douglas and Parkrose districts. This partnership will give students whose financial situation puts them at a disadvantage to their peers access to transit — and access to opportunity — for the upcoming school year," says TriMet General Manager Doug Kelsey.

The unequal situation is the result of a statw law that says school districts that are well served by transit do not have to provide free bus service to and from school for high school students. TriMet provides such service in the PPS district, but not in David Douglas and Park Rose.

Several years ago, the Portland City Council, PPS board and TriMet agreed to provide free passes to all PPS high school students, regardless of household income, in part to encourage young people to ride transit. Part of the cost was covered by state tax credits.

But the council and TriMet did not initially provide such a benefit to David Douglas and Park Rose high school students, who were served by free school bus service. By the time the council and TriMet agreed to extend the benefit to all school districts in the city, the state tax credit had been eliminated, increasing the cost to the city and TriMet. And the Great Recession crimped the budgets of all local governments. The council and TriMet only agreed to provide free passes to low-income David Douglas and Park Rose high school students this year.

The budget for the next fiscal year approved by the council does not include any funds for any high school students. The agreement announced Monday restores the program during the next school year to this year's level.

"This agreement means that for the coming year these students will have greater access to jobs, training opportunities, classes at Portland Community or Mt. Hood Community colleges, libraries and other destinations that support their education," says Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

The work group to be appointed will study different funding options. They could include using funding from a new employee payroll tax established by the by the 2017 Oregon Legislature as part of its transportation funding package.

The legislation requires one percent of the revenue from the tax to go toward high school student transportation. The working group may also consider seeking state financial support for student transit programs, and identifying other funding opportunities at the regional or state levels.

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