By Ethan Forman
State Auditor Suzanne Bump has determined that requiring towns like Danvers to pay to transport and educate homeless children sheltered in local motels represents an unfunded mandate costing communities millions.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act allows homeless families relocated to an emergency shelter or motel in another community to send their children to school either in their new host city or town, or to continue being educated in their hometown. If the family chooses the latter, the host community and the hometown must share the cost of transporting children back and forth.
Danvers has had hundreds of homeless families living in its four "budget motels" since the start of the economic downturn at the end of 2008, and the town has been looking for state aid to pay for transporting students at the motels back to their home districts.
A year ago, state Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, appealed to Bump's office, saying the transportation requirement put an undue burden on communities and was an unfunded mandate. Bump agreed.
But she also ruled that requiring school systems like Danvers to educate homeless children from the motels, and pay all costs associated with that, is also an unfunded mandate for which the state should pick up the tab.
"For some communities, this plan cuts into their school district's overall ability to provide a quality education," Bump said.
As of Oct. 11, there were 1,410 families living in motels in 33 communities across the state. Six of these communities, including Danvers, host more than 100 families.
Danvers, a town of 26,400, has about 8 percent of the state's motel families, the auditor wrote in a letter to Speliotis. The town does not receive any money under the McKinney-Vento Act; only urban areas do, Speliotis said. But it cost the town $145,140 last year to transport homeless children, Bump said.
As of last week, Danvers had 117 homeless families spread out among the Knights Inn, Days Inn, Extended Stay and Motel 6. So far this year, 62 homeless children are attending school in Danvers, and 22 are being transported from Danvers every day to schools in Chelsea, Everett, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lynn, Malden, Peabody, Revere, Salem and Somerville, Bump's letter says.
Bump said in an interview that it's possible that communities like Danvers could go to court to become exempt from some of McKinney-Vento's requirements, but added that it's "not a feasible alternative given that it is a statewide problem here."
Instead, she recommended the Legislature and the governor fund certain education and transportation requirements for some homeless students at an estimated cost of up to $6.3 million.
Speliotis had appealed to an obscure state agency in Bump's office, the Division of Local Mandates, which looks at new state laws or regulations that may carry a price tag for local communities. These laws must either be fully funded by the state or accepted by communities.
Bump said Speliotis can use the opinion to make his case for more funding from the Legislature.
"I'm thrilled," Speliotis said. "I think that this greatly strengthens our position to request funding."
Speliotis said he met with Bump and several other legislators and plans a meeting with the education commissioner in the near future.
Town Manager Wayne Marquis was also pleased with the ruling.
"Those costs for transportation are particularly onerous because you can't budget for it, and it is out-of-pocket costs," Marquis said.
He said the town wasn't looking for reimbursement for educating homeless children in Danvers schools, but was seeking funding for transporting children to other districts.
The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law, and the state law about unfunded mandates wouldn't ordinarily apply. But in this case, the auditor said the act amounts to a state mandate because the state voluntarily received $10 million in federal assistance over the past 10 years.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DanverSalemNews.