By Ethan Forman
DANVERS — The schools this year may be forced to pay $130,000 to send homeless students living in town motels to classes in their former communities, a top school official said.
That estimate is close to double what Danvers spent last year and is well above initial estimates for this school year.
The school's interim business manager, Keith Taverna, gave the transportation cost estimate at a School Committee meeting last Monday.
Transportation, it turns out, is the most tangible financial hit that the town must absorb when it comes to playing host to more than 100 families living in Danvers motels, which are being used as emergency assistance shelters due to an overflow of the regular shelter system. The number of those being sheltered in motels has spiked statewide, and Danvers plays host to about 8 percent of the total population of homeless families living in motel rooms.
A recent ruling by the state auditor may provide a way for Danvers and other cities and towns that host sizable homeless populations to be reimbursed by the state for transportation and other education costs.
State Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, asked the auditor's office for the ruling, and selectmen plan to invite him and a representative of Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry's office to an upcoming meeting in mid-December to get the state to pay.
Late last month, State Auditor Suzanne Bump's Division of Local Mandates found some education costs associated with the state's emergency assistance program were unfunded mandates. The local mandate law provides that any post-1980 state law or rule that imposes additional costs on cities and towns be paid for by the state or accepted locally, given the tax constraints of Proposition 21/2.
Transportation costs for homeless students housed in motels who choose to attend their old schools are unfunded mandates the state should pay for, Bump said.
The ability of students to attend their school of origin is part of the 2002 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which the state voluntarily has adopted.
The auditor estimated the transportation costs statewide for homeless students under McKinney-Vento to be $1 million a year.
Danvers could sue to be exempt from the requirements of the homeless assistance act, but Speliotis and the auditor have said that may not be practical, so it may be up to the Legislature to fund the program.
Selectmen have long been pushing for the state to provide some sort of financial aid for transportation, and it's been a source of tension between the board and Speliotis.
Selectman Keith Lucy said what it really comes down to is Speliotis should "file a bill that requests funding based on the auditor's finding. ... Show me the money," he said.
"He should follow through with what he started," Selectman Bill Clark said at the meeting about the representative's efforts, "and we should be made whole."
"We don't need to file a bill," Speliotis said yesterday. "A bill cannot spend money. You have to do it through an appropriation."
Finding funding may be tough, Speliotis said. The Legislature and the governor approved $165 million for a HomeBase program for family shelters and services in fiscal 2011, according to the auditor's report. The program has helped reduce the number of homeless in motels, Speliotis said.
For instance, the number of homeless families being sheltered in one of four motels in town is down to 106 families from a peak of 141 in mid-August, officials said during a selectmen's meeting Tuesday.
However, an additional $39 million for the HomeBase program in a supplemental budget shows that the program is expensive. Staff for Ways and Means committees and the governor's office are reviewing the homeless issue and may make some decision by Dec. 9, Speliotis said.
It is not an unfunded mandate for Danvers to pick up education costs for homeless students who attend Danvers schools, the auditor found.
However, it is an unfunded mandate when homeless students choose to attend school in another community, and the receiving community pays for the education.
In fact, Danvers has 13 students, mostly at the high and middle schools, who used to live in motels in town and no longer do, but they have chosen to return and attend Danvers schools, School Committee Chairman Eric Crane told selectmen Tuesday. Under this scenario, Danvers should be reimbursed by the state for this education cost, he said.
Selectmen also questioned if the state should pick up another cost not addressed in the auditor's report: the $300 bus fee that families are required to pay per pupil so their children can ride the school bus.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DanverSalemNews.