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 Original article can be found at the Seaside Signal.

By Katherine Lacaze; January 28, 2020

Any student in the county with a school ID card can now ride the buses free. A new program from the Sunset Empire Transportation District provides transportation for students to jobs, after-school programs or other activities.

During a presentation to the Seaside School Board on Jan. 21, the district’s executive director Jeff Hazen described the program, which kicked off at the start of the year, as a “win-win.”

“A lot of our funding is based on ridership and miles,” he said. 

Because the district’s fleet is filled with buses large enough to meet demand during peak seasons, there is often plenty of seating available on them.

“If we can fill those empty seats up with kids, we’re going to get some more money down the road,” Hazen said, adding it takes about two years for that cycle to occur. “More importantly, it takes away the transportation barrier for the kids.”

In 2017, the Oregon Legislature passed a robust transportation bill that guaranteed public agencies a stable funding source. During the short legislative session in 2018, they added a component about student transportation, asking agencies to commit up to 1% of funding to young riders, with a focus on grades nine through 12. Since then, the Sunset Empire Transportation District has been exploring ideas for better serving students in the county.

“It’s a great time in Oregon to be a part of transportation,” Hazen said. “It’s the first time we’ve had a solid source of money and it’s a huge game-changer.”

Last summer, the district planned to provide bus transportation to students in Knappa and Jewell doing paid internships with the Clatsop WORKS Program. No students in those outlying areas were in need of the service, but Hazen said the agency will revisit the idea this summer.

During the Oregon Transit Association Conference in October 2019, Hazen and his colleagues had the opportunity to learn what other counties and agencies across the state are doing.

“It really inspired us hearing the stories,” he said.

Grant County provided free bus rides to students in kindergarten through 12th grade, which is the system the Sunset Empire Transportation District decided to emulate.

To make the program more effective, the district also is changing its policy that required children 9 years and younger to ride with an adult. Realizing many older students take care of their younger siblings while their parents and guardians work, the district now permits children 9 and younger to ride with another passenger who is at least 12 years old.

“That allows those older siblings to be able to care for the younger sibling and get on the bus with them,” Hazen said, adding they chose age 12 because it mirrors the state’s guidelines for babysitting.

Middle and high school students can show their student IDs when getting on the bus. For elementary aged students, the district is relying on drivers to discern if a passenger meets the age requirement.

“Our drivers are really good about watching out for the kids and making sure they get off at the right spot,” Hazen said. “They’ll be very well taken care of.”

Board notes

• The board approved a $2,500 gift donation from Lum’s Auto Center. The money will go toward implementing Kajeet, a program that provides off-campus Wi-Fi service to students who don’t have Internet access at home, and new furniture for the high school’s Zen Den, the sensory room at the high school.

• The board approved a gift donation of $2,524.54 from the Cannon Beach Chamber for the Seaside High School Culinary Arts Program. The funds were raised in 2019 at the chamber’s North Coast Culinary Fest, a celebration of James Beard in Cannon Beach. The culinary arts program sent numerous student volunteers to help at the event and they plan to do so again for the festival this year.

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