By Colleen Quinn

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 13, 2012…….Armed with new state audit findings, several lawmakers are asking state budget writers to step in and help their communities cover the costs of busing homeless children to school – a figure that topped $11.3 million in fiscal year 2012.

The group of legislators wrote a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray requesting a mid-year budget bill to pay for the escalating transportation costs that impact school budgets in more than 200 cities and towns.

A report last week by Auditor Suzanne Bump, which described the transportation costs as an unfunded mandate, gives lawmakers ammunition to fight for funds, according to legislators from affected communities.

Bump’s report documented the burden placed on municipalities by the state’s participation in the federal McKinney-Vento program, which requires both the community hosting homeless students and the community where they last lived to share the cost of transportation and education. Bump called on the Patrick administration and the Legislature to pay for busing homeless children to school.

The auditor said she met with a group of school superintendents on the South Shore who “were all very excited that attention was being paid to what is a considerable burden for many of them, particularly in the city of Brockton where the cost is $285,000.”

“Every dollar that gets spent on transportation is a dollar that is taken away from classroom support,” she said.

According to the auditor’s report, 33 school districts will pay more than $100,000 this fiscal year. Boston, Springfield, Chicopee and Worcester have the highest costs in the state. Boston spent $761,000 and Worcester’s total topped $425,000.

Rep. Thomas Stanley (D-Waltham) said he has been trying to get the state to pay for busing homeless school children for years. Stanley initiated the letter to legislative leaders. Waltham has a number of homeless shelters, and hotels where the state puts up families, and last year spent more than $200,000 busing homeless children to school.

“I have tried to get money in the past to no avail. But I didn’t have a study like this to back me up,” he said, referring to the auditor’s report.

Lawmakers in affected communities said they want stress to budget writers contemplating funding for homeless programs that school districts are unfairly sharing the burden.

“I hope to demonstrate some support for funding the unfunded mandate and reimbursing cities and towns that were forced by the state to finance a state issue,” Stanley said. “Right now, a selected number of cities and towns are paying a lot more of the burden to transport homeless children to and from school.”

According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, the number of families in Emergency Assistance shelters increased by 230 percent between October 2005 and October 2010, and over 7,000 families sought emergency shelter assistance in fiscal 2011.

Stanley said lawmakers are sympathetic to the needs of homeless children living in temporary situations, but added “all I am saying is communities like Waltham should not have to bear the transportation costs for the rest of the state.”

The costs of transporting homeless students are “on the verge” of causing teacher layoffs, Stanley said.

Over the past two years, Waltham spent more than $200,000 busing homeless children to school. As of Jan. 25, there were 69 homeless school-aged children living in various hotels in the city, and an additional 73 non-school aged kids, according to statistics compiled by the state Department of Housing and Community Development. School-aged children range in age from 5 to 18.

Rep. Theodore Speliotis (D-Danvers) said he and Stanley have had conversations with House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey to push for funding. A spokeswoman for Dempsey said he had not seen the letter yet.

“My position is as long as we have this policy, we ought to be treating the cities and towns as partners, not leaving them isolated to absorb all of this cost,” Speliotis said. “For the 33 communities that spend over $100,000, that is a couple of police officers or a couple of teachers being able to be retained or put on.”

Danvers School Superintendent Lisa Dana said her school district is greatly affected by the federal law, spending more than $100,000 this year to bus homeless children. The school district spends an additional $34,000 busing homeless children from the handful of hotels located along the Route 1 and Route 114 to schools in town.

“It is a cost that was unexpected,” Dana said.

Dana said school officials can never anticipate the number of homeless children who will need transportation. The number of school-aged homeless children living in hotels as of Jan. 25 totaled 77. Another 84 non-school aged children reside in Danvers hotels.

Rep. Stephen DiNatale, a Democrat from Fitchburg, called the lack of funding a “stranglehold” on school districts. Fitchburg schools spent $194,486 last year, and so far this year the figure totals $107,000, according to DiNatale.

“I don’t think it is being managed properly, and it is costing us precious dollars we can’t afford to expend,” he said.

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