The Seattle School Board will vote Wednesday on expanding its free ORCA card program.
Update at 5:44 p.m.: The Seattle School Board postponed its vote on whether to accept a grant from the City of Seattle to provide more transit passes for low-income middle- and high-school students. If the proposal is approved at the Feb. 3 School Board meeting, eligible students will receive free transit passes starting Feb. 4.
Original post: The Seattle City Council’s 2016 budget, approved last November, includes $1 million to provide more transit passes for low-income middle- and high-school students, extending free passes to those who live who live closer to school than the district’s two-mile requirement. The council voted to give free passes to qualified middle school students who live 1 to 1.5 miles from their school, and qualified high school students who live within 1 to 2 miles of their school.
Now the Seattle School Board is considering expanding the program even more, so that all students who are eligible for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program would have a free transit pass to get to school. The School Board will vote Wednesday on whether to accept the grant from the City of Seattle, with a promise to review the program within six weeks and potentially add the closer-living students.
The district currently offers ORCA cards to low-income secondary students who live more than 2 miles from their neighborhood school. About 8,500 students use the passes, according to the district.
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With the city’s funding, about 2,500 more students will be eligible for the transit passes, and could start receiving them around Feb. 1.
The school board may limit its additional support to students who have difficulty getting to class, participate in Running Start or go to a non-neighborhood school.
The expansion is largely credited to the efforts of Rainier Beach students who have lobbied for free transit passes since last summer. They marched from district headquarters in Sodo to Seattle City Hall and testified about the difficulties they face getting to school. They also hosted a town-hall meeting in October.
Their efforts caught the eye of Seattle City Council members, who added the $1 million to pay for additional passes.
But at a school board meeting earlier this month, Rainier Beach students and staff members, as well as transit advocates, told board directors they felt they hadn’t been included in the process of figuring out how the program would be implemented. They had hoped the transit passes would be available to all students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches, according to Rainier Beach social worker Chelsea Gallegos.
In response, officials from the school district, City Council, Mayor Ed Murray’s office and Seattle Department of Transportation met with the Rainier Beach group last week to discuss details of the program. The district also plans to create an ORCA card program task force.