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Mass. towns can seek aid for busing homeless students

Auditor says state should help with costs

State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump’s determination Thursday that forcing municipalities to pay for the transportation and education of homeless students living in motels and shelters is an unfunded mandate has paved the way for communities to lobby the Legislature for funding.

“It certainly strengthens our position to seek funding in the Legislature,’’ state Representative Theodore C. Speliotis, a Danvers Democrat, said yesterday. “It’s a very big victory for cities and towns that have borne these costs over the last few years.’’

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The issue has been in contention since Speliotis asked Bump’s office a year ago to review the state’s participation in the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which gives homeless families placed in temporary housing by the state the option to attend school in their home district or the district where they are sheltered. Under the act, if a family chooses to send children to school in their home district, the cost must be shared by that district and the district where the shelter is located.

Bump determined the act was not a federal mandate because the state chose to participate in it nearly a decade ago.

Statewide, 1,410 families lived in motels in 33 cities or towns by Oct. 11, according to Bump’s office. Six communities host more than 100 families, including Danvers (117), which spent $145,140 transporting homeless students to other school districts last year, according to Bump’s findings.

“I would like to emphasize that the Town of Danvers has been very welcoming to [homeless] families, very generous in support of them, but there are limits to the costs local taxpayers can be expected to bear,’’ Bump said in a telephone interview yesterday. “And so I recognize this request isn’t motivated by hostility or desire to do wrong by these kids. It’s just being done in the name of having the funds to educate kids appropriately.’’

Bump determined the state should help pay transportation costs for homeless students living outside their home district who choose to remain in their original schools. She also said that forcing districts to continue to pay for homeless students who no longer attend school there is also an unfunded mandate.

But Bump said districts should still be required to pay to educate homeless children residing in their district even though she determined that, too, is an unfunded mandate.

She said statewide the program costs about $1 million annually in transportation costs and could cost as much as $5.3 million in educational costs.

Selectman Gardner Trask of Danvers was among a group that lobbied Speliotis to fight the act at the state level.

“We worked with our state legislators, and they were able to help get action or at least confirmation that our concerns are real and valid,’’ Trask said yesterday. “The result, that’s the next step in the process.’’

Bump’s determination allows municipalities to seek an exemption from the act in court, but she recommended that communities lobby the Legislature for the necessary funding because one court-exempted community could jeopardize federal funding for the entire state.

Speliotis said he is wary about asking the Legislature for more funding in tough fiscal times, but he also said that “now we know we have a favorable ruling, and we can be much more aggressive seeking the funds and try to come up with the appropriate funding level.’’

Justin A. Rice can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com.
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