Schools welcome millions in aid
Area public school districts will receive $2.5 million in state funds to reimburse them for the cost to transport homeless students who lived in hotels, shelters, and other temporary housing during the last school year.
The local funds are part of $11.3 million contained in the new state budget signed by Governor Deval Patrick last Sunday to reimburse Massachusetts school districts that comply with the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
The law allows homeless children to attend school in their home district or where their temporary housing is located. The two school districts must split the transportation costs. State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump determined last October that the state’s voluntary participation in a federal education program created a mandate for which local communities should be reimbursed.
A survey found that Bay State school districts spent a total of $11.3 million, for which the new state budget includes a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement. Reimbursements for 42 school districts north of Boston range from a high of $396,831 for Malden to $1,820 for Rockport.
“It’s a great victory for cities and towns, especially Danvers that led the charge,” said state Representative Theodore Speliotis, a Democrat from Danvers, where officials last year publicly questioned if local communities should cover the costs on their own. “The auditor’s report was key in determining that the state had to address these costs.”
Danvers is one of nine local communities, and 33 across the state, that will receive more than $100,000 in reimbursement. “We look forward to that funding to support our transportation costs,” said Danvers School Superintendent Lisa Dana. “This will allow us to have a more balanced budget, and the decisions that we need to make through the school year.”
Danvers is among several local towns, along with Chelmsford, Saugus, and Woburn, with hotels used by the state to house homeless families. The influx of homeless students put new pressure on transportation costs, but the reimbursement should ease the burden, local school officials said.
“I will be there with my pockets wide open when the money arrives,” said Joseph Elia, business manager for Woburn schools. “The last couple of years, it’s become a bigger issue for us. Our numbers have skyrocketed.”
In cities, where foreclosures have hit hard and where shelters are often located, transportation costs have cut into funding for other programs. “The economy in the last few years has dictated that we spend more on homeless transportation,” said Chelsea School Superintendent Mary Bourque. “That’s taking money away from a tutor or books in the library, an after-school program.”
“Homeless transportation is a serious amount of money in our budget,” said David DeRuosi, school superintendent in Malden, which has budgeted $400,000 for homeless transportation for the new school year. “Unfortunately, we continue to see an increase in homeless students,” DeRuosi said. “We’re a big district, and it’s another tight budget year. Anything the state wants to reimburse us for, I’m going to take it with open arms.”
Other school leaders said the transportation funding is a boost in bleak times.
“We have a lot of state mandates that we don’t receive funding for,” said Catherine Latham, superintendent in Lynn, which is due to receive $213,000, the second largest amount of any local district. “I’m thrilled we’re getting this. I really wasn’t sure it would make it through the budget process.”
The House version of the state budget included $11.3 million to reimburse communities across the state. But the Senate version of the budget contained no funding for the item. A House-Senate conference committee ultimately put it back into the state’s $32.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that started July 1.
In a statement, Bump hailed state legislators. “Their 2013 budget will completely reimburse school systems affected last year by a state program related to busing and educating homeless school children.”
Some school officials said the reimbursement should help stabilize an unpredictable budget cost. “It’s a very volatile line item, because we never know how many kids will be affected,” said Revere School Superintendent Paul Dakin. “We have no problem educating any kid who is homeless. We have been doing it at the expense of our own budget . . . But I think the legislature has recognized now that homeless costs should be [covered] by the state.”
Everett’s $185,857 reimbursement is welcome news at a time when the district is still weighing teacher layoffs for September, said Assistant Superintendent Charles Obremski.
“It’s very hard to estimate now, but there will be a number of teachers, and paraprofessionals, that won’t be back,” Obremski said. “This [reimbursement] is fantastic. More than likely, it would go toward teachers.”