DANVERS — One of the last items that School Committee member Bill Bates had to deal with after nine consecutive years on the board was an unpleasant one: a $311,000 budget shortfall triggered by unexpected out-of-district special education tuitions and homeless transportation costs.
Bates, the full-time district coordinator for state Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, announced in January that he would step down after three terms on the board. With the Town Election on May 1, last night turned out to be Bates' final meeting, since the board does not plan to convene again before then.
School Committee Chairman Eric Crane thanked Bates for his service, saying parents knew they could pick up the phone and get a receptive ear from Bates.
"I never missed a meeting in nine years," said Bates, who said he was afraid to say that until last night's meeting took place so he wouldn't jinx his streak.
"It's because it's important," he said about why he regularly attended meetings. "It matters."
The budget shortfall includes more than $140,000 in out-of-district special education tuitions and $168,000 in costs to transport homeless students whose families are sheltered in motels in town. The schools have a spending freeze in place to try to deal with the shortfall, it was revealed last night.
In August, the number of homeless families sheltered by the state in four motels in town peaked at 147, with 110 school-age children, according to information provided by Town Hall. The number of families has since fallen and leveled off to 112 families with 97 school-age children at the end of March.
Unsure of what the cost of transporting homeless students might be at the start of the school year, the district budgeted $12,600, Superintendent Lisa Dana said.
Danvers splits the transportation cost with other districts to send students back to the schools they attended before their families became homeless, under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. In October, State Auditor Suzanne Bump determined that these transportation costs are unfunded mandates costing communities millions.
"We are hoping for something in the supplemental budget," Crane said about the desire of town officials for some state money to cover homeless transportation costs before the fiscal year runs out. However, Crane was resigned to the fact that "it seems unlikely the state is going to pass a supplemental budget before Town Meeting" on May 21.
Crane urged members to attend upcoming Finance Committee hearings that touch on the school budget to answer questions about the shortfall, which he said is a rare occurrence for the department. Members said it is likely the money will come from transfers from within and among accounts.
School Committee member Arthur Skarmeas is among those who emphasized that this is not a case of the schools overspending.
"We have no ability to control those costs," Skarmeas said.
Bates urged members to reach out to Finance Committee and Town Meeting members about the reason for the budget gap.
"Please continue to communicate with those stakeholders," Bates said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DanverSalemNews.