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Future funding for SF’s walk to school program in limbo

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Rico Right walks through the Sunnydale Housing Development to his first day of seventh grade at Visitation Valley Middle School on Monday, Aug. 21. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Do kids still walk to school?

Not anymore, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority — at least, not in large numbers. That data spurred the creation of a program called “Safe Routes to School” in which transportation staff walk with elementary-age students to school across San Francisco.

Now that program is facing a potential cut of at least a quarter of its funding, as members of the transportation authority question its effectiveness in spurring more kids to walk to school, instead of being driven by their parents.

The program is funded through 2019, but a potential future budget cut from $2.8 million to about $2.06 million was up for vote at the transportation authority on Tuesday at the urging of Supervisor Katy Tang, also a transportation commissioner. Tang wanted $750,000 of the program’s funding to instead go toward creating street safety measures in the Sunset District, and elsewhere.

“I don’t think it’s just about safety advocacy alone, it’s about engineering,” she said. “I don’t consider that a cut to the Safe Routes to School program.”

The program began in 2009 and is administered by the Department of Public Health for use by San Francisco Unified School District families, utilizing funding from the transportation authority. Tang and other supervisors said the program lacks evaluation metrics that left administrators unable answer to a “simple” question — is the program working?

“I don’t want to give money away to a program just because it sounds great,” said Board of Supervisors President London Breed, also a transportation commissioner.

Despite the critique, the program’s administrator, Ana Validzic, said changes were coming to improve their accountability, including surveys and other metrics.

The budget cut would reduce the number of elementary schools served by the walk to school program from 35 to 25, and middle schools from four to two. There would also be a 32 percent staff reduction as part of the proposed budget cut.

About a dozen parents came out in support of the program at the transportation authority’s meeting Tuesday.

“There’s really nearby a tunnel, a dangerous place,” said Rui Jun Li, a San Francisco parent whose two children attend Jean Parker Elementary School. “Around Chinatown a lot of parents they like this program a lot. So they can walk together and feel more safety.”

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