The board of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority may cut funds to a program that helps kids get to school safely. In the past few years, Safe Routes To School has partnered with 35 elementary, middle, and high schools across the city to teach kids how to bike, create “walking school buses” (a walk to school group), educate parents on transit options, and advocate for safer kid-friendly streets. While 40 percent of San Francisco elementary school students live within one mile of school, only 27 percent of students get there on foot.
But on Tuesday, the next round of the program’s funding, which runs from 2019 to 2021, is threatened by a 25-percent cut — from $2.8 million to $2.06 million. The losses are huge: The five staff members dedicated to providing the services would be cut to three, and 10 schools would be removed, reducing it to 25. The program, which currently reaches 35,000 school children a year (many from low-income communities) would only assist 25,000.
Multicultural outreach for Safe Routes to School events, such as Bike and Roll to School Day (which last year drew 6,000 students from 93 schools to participate) and Walk and Roll to School Day (which drew 13,500 participants) are also under threat.
Many members of the Board of Supervisors supported the move to defund the program, claiming that a lack of clear data from Safe Routes to School, combined with a nominal increase of kids walking and biking concerned them — especially considering that the program has received millions of dollars in the past.
Sup. Katy Tang states that from 2009 to 2015, walking to school actually decreased 1.5 percent. Biking increased during the same period, but only by one percent.
“The lack of robust evaluation over the past eight years is what’s leading to this frustration,” Sup. Aaron Peskin states. “Let’s do something that we can actually touch and quantify.”
But Sup. Jeff Sheehy supported the full funding. “We have a great program — potentially. We just don’t have the data to support it. For many people, this has been incredibly effective. We recognize that we have a citywide problem in getting kids to and from school. So to try to take this pocket of money and make that the fulcrum of the larger issue seems to me the wrong way to go.”
Data aside, there does appear to have been a lack of communication between the Safe Routes to School team, the school district, the Department of Public Health, the advocacy groups involved, and the supervisors.
“Safe Routes to School has continually evolved, and I realize now that we haven’t communicated that,” says Nikolai Kaestner, the sustainability director for the San Francisco Unified School District. He explains that last year, a walking school bus at Bessie Carmichael — a school in SoMa with a high truancy rate — sought to fix that problem creatively by choosing routes that would pick up kids skipping class. This year, the Safe Routes to School model has adapted to create neighborhood task forces of parents who can provide feedback on what changes are needed near their schools.
“To say the program has been static since 2008 is far from the truth,” Kaestner says.
For two advocacy groups involved in Safe Routes to School — the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Walk San Francisco — both of which would lose an employee in the cuts, the loss of funding is a devastating prospect.
Ana Vasudeo, program manager for SFBC, tells SF Weekly that the funding cut will most affect schools with a high number of kids on the free-and-reduced meal program, a determination for eligibility to be included in Safe Routes to School.
“City agencies alone can’t do this work, and cutting this funding is cutting a lot of what these advocacy organizations have done to instill trust in so many low-income communities. That’s who’s being targeted in this,” she says.
The $751,246 cut from the budget will be held for yet-to-be-determined improvements — which could include infrastructure or efforts to bring back yellow school buses — both projects that vastly exceed such a relatively small sum.
In the end, the verdict on what the best way to get kids to school safely remains unclear — and as Peskin puts it, there are still “too many cooks in the kitchen.” After a nearly three-hour discussion, the supervisors voted to continue the topic until the end of the year, giving everyone — advocates and politicians alike — more time to fine-tune their arguments on what’s best for San Francisco’s children.