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Eastern New Orleans students want more reliable, faster bus service

Benjamin Franklin students who live in eastern New Orleans have made their voices heard – they want a more reliable form of transportation to and from school, and they want it soon.

Students protest for better bus service.

A vigorous protest by more than 20 students, who are also associated with the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans, preceded Thursday’s meeting of the board that runs Benjamin Franklin Charter High School. Students protesting said that while the school does give free public-transit fare to students whose parents can’t drive them to and from school, the wait times for those public buses are long. They want private buses to shuttle them instead.

The association’s assistant director, Jacob Cohen, said students first raised these issues with the board at April’s board meeting, but they haven’t yet gotten a clear answer on if the board will provide those buses.

School board President Duris Holmes said that the board hasn’t affirmed a new form of bus service because it’s still looking into the issue, and it didn’t want to give out any further information until it checks out the costs. After the students staged a protest on the neutral ground in front of the school, Holmes and the other board members amended the meeting’s agenda so students could again address the board.

State law requires public schools to provide some form of free transportation to students. However, the Orleans Parish School Board’s operating agreement with Franklin doesn’t mandate a specific type of transportation, Orleans school system Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools Kathleen Padian said.

Cohen said that despite the fact that the school gives out free bus fare, the hour and a half it takes for students to get to school from the East on a public bus, plus the blocks-long walk some students have to make from the bus stop in the early morning and late evening hours, is difficult.

“People feel like it’s not reliable, it’s incredibly burdensome, it’s dangerous,” he said.

More than 20 students at the hour-and-a-half long protest held up signs, chanted, and made speeches about their experience on public transportation.

Toward the end of the meeting, the board and the school’s chief executive officer, Timothy Rusnak, began to discuss the bus issue. When asked by board members if private bus services are common at other schools, Rusnak said that while elementary schools are known to have private bus companies, for safety reasons, “generally speaking, high schools in urban areas do not supply direct yellow bus transportation.”

Padian released a statement late Thursday that seemed to align with Rusnak’s assertion:

“Benjamin Franklin High School, like many charter high schools in the Greater New Orleans area, offers availability to public transportation for all students through the distribution of free bus tokens,” she said. “This common practice is in full compliance with OPSB’s operating agreement.”

At least one city charter high school – Warren Easton – offers that service, and has expanded it recently.

Holmes did say that the board has reached out to the Regional Transit Authority to help work out a solution to students’ concerns. He said the board still needs to do some research before it makes a decision, including how much it would cost to fund a private bus.

The board’s next meeting is on June 21.

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