Published: Tuesday, February 07, 2012, 6:11 PM Updated: Tuesday, February 07, 2012, 7:46 PM
By Stephanie Barry, The Republican The Republican
The State Auditor announced that projected busing costs for homeless children across Massachusetts will increase almost $1 million this year, nudging up the financial burden for cash-strapped cities and towns under an unfunded mandate.
State Auditor Suzanne Bump released the results of a statewide survey that found the estimated price tag to bus transient homeless students within and between school districts will reach $11.3 million this year.
Last year’s reported costs reached $10.4 million, according to state figures. The leap is attributed to an approximate 8.5 percent increase in gas prices, and a persistently dour economy driving up the numbers of homeless families, according to Bump’s office.
High numbers of families being sheltered in hotels in urban communities also have driven up costs.
Some of the state’s highest projected totals for busing homeless students hail from Western Massachusetts including $563,000 in Springfield; $431,000 in Chicopee; and $311,000 in Holyoke – where about 10 percent of the student population is homeless. All are examples of cities where hotel sheltering is prevalent.
On top of the enduring and increasingly expensive problem of homelessness, unfunded mandates have long been the bane of municipal and state budget crunchers. In this case, cities and towns are shackled to the busing costs by way of being recipients of millions in federal McKinney-Vento homeless assistance.
The state’s application of the program funds requires both the community hosting homeless students and the community from which the students originate to share busing costs. Bump’s office is urging the Legislature to provide funding to cover the cost for cities and towns in the next budget cycle.
Municipal and school leaders support Bump’s call.
In Springfield, Mayor Domenic J. Sarno said school transportation is a $23 million line item and a “budget buster” that comes out of the city’s general fund as opposed to School Department coffers. While the half-million devoted to busing homeless students is not a deal-breaker, Sarno said it’s an added burden in challenging fiscal times.
“We are 33 square miles, and we are obligated to get our kids to school. We understand that, but it would be very helpful if we were able to work with the school department. There’s got to be a short-term and long-term conversation about how to address this,” Sarno said.
Azell Murphy-Cavaan, spokeswoman for the School Department, said about 600 of Springfield’s 25,000 students are homeless and noted that a consistent school placement may be the only normalcy in a homeless child’s life.