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Danvers homeless families a focus of House race

Dan Bennett.

Dan Bennett.

The homeless families living in Danvers motels are a focus of contention as the race for state representative in the 13th Essex District moves into its final days.

Democratic incumbent Theodore C. Speliotis and Republican Dan Bennett, both of Danvers, are vying in a rematch of their 2010 race, which was narrowly won by Speliotis. The newly redrawn district includes Danvers and parts of west Peabody and Middleton.

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Speliotis, in his eighth term after a previous stint of four terms,  says he has been effective on Beacon Hill, citing in particular his work to ease the costs to Danvers of having children from homeless families attend town schools.

“I think it’s been an extraordinarily successful two years for me,” he said.

But Bennett, a two-term Danvers selectman, contends that Speliotis has failed to take action to reduce the placement of homeless families in motels and questions how much credit he is due for addressing the town’s costs.

Speliotis cited a letter he wrote to the state auditor’s office in 2010, in which he argued that local communities should be reimbursed for the costs of transporting homeless children to school because they arise from an unfunded state mandate.

In response to his letter, the state auditor, Suzanne Bump, in October 2011 said cities and towns that either host a homeless student or are the community from which the student came should be reimbursed by the state for their shared cost of transporting the students to school because the expenses arise from the state’s voluntary participation in a federal mandate.

Speliotis said that he then played a key role in the Legislature’s appropriation of $11.3 million in the fiscal 2013 budget to reimburse communities for those costs. Danvers was among 33 communities receiving more than $100,000.

But Bennett said the legislative appropriation does not reimburse the town for the approximately $300,000 it spent for transporting homeless students in past years. And he said there is no guarantee of funding in future years.

“The Legislature has the right to put money into the budget and the right to take it out. I don’t see anything guaranteed,” he said.

Speliotis said that Danvers also received a 36 percent increase in education aid, or $1.6 million, largely because the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education – which allots aid in part based on a community’s income levels – opted to start including homeless families when determining a host city or town’s income levels.

Bump also addressed education funding in her 2011 finding. She said that requiring the community from which a homeless student comes to fund that student’s education costs was an unfunded mandate.

State Representative Theodore C. Speliotis.

State Representative Theodore C. Speliotis.

Although Bump did not make that same case for a host community, Speliotis said the overall discussion that began with his 2010 letter was a factor in the state education department’s decision.

“It’s a jackpot,” Speliotis said, noting that the boost in the town’s school aid will remain intact even if the homeless families depart Danvers, since school districts cannot receive less school aid in any subsequent year.

But Bennett questioned whether any of the increase in the town’s school aid was attributable to the homeless families, citing a memo written by the school district’s business manager, Keith Taverna, that was forwarded to him.

The memo said the town received the increase because its “required net school spending rose more than the town’s ability to increase funding” and because “the state has a percentage goal of local contribution of total spending and Danvers currently contributes” at above that level. He also cited the state’s overall increase in school aid.

Speliotis said his explanation for the aid increase came from state education officials.

Meanwhile Bennett, who served on the former Danvers Housing Assistance Trust, said helping to “stop the warehousing of families in motels” would be a key issue for him.

“It’s not right. It’s inhumane to put these folks in hotels, where they have no stoves, no play areas for the kids. It’s not a way to raise a family,” he said, adding of Speliotis, “The representative has done nothing to create affordable transitional or permanent housing for any of the homeless families.”

Speliotis responded that Bennett has “chosen to ignore” the $100 million the Legislature provided this year for rental housing vouchers for homeless people and for homelessness prevention.

Bennett, who owns a real estate agency, formerly served on the School Committee and as a library trustee.

He is also vice chairman of the Essex Agricultural and Technical High School board of trustees.

“My years of public service to the town and in particular in the areas of housing, education, and zoning make me the right person for the job as state representative,” he said.

Speliotis, a former Danvers town moderator, is House chairman of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.

“I feel I’ve worked a long time to get to where I am now, to be able to effect the change I’ve effected over the last two years, he said.

Bill Nicholson, a Democrat who is a longtime Danvers town meeting member and former selectman, is supporting Speliotis’s reelection.

“He knows the ins and outs of the State House, having been there awhile. He’s accomplished a lot this year,” he said, citing the school aid increase and the state funding for the homeless as examples. “He has always answered the call when people have asked him for help.”

Diane Langlais, a Danvers Finance Committee member who is unenrolled, is serving as Bennett’s campaign manager.

In the difficult economic climate, Langlais said, voters are “looking to their state and local officials to hold down costs till they can get back on their feet. . . . I know Dan recognizes that because of his experience in local budgeting.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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