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Schools Provide FinCom with Homeless Student and Kindergarten Details

2013 September 16
by The Bedford Citizen

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Superintendent of Schools Jon Sills and School Committee Chair Ed Pierce presented information to the Finance Committee (FinCom) on September 12 about Bedford’s unexpectedly elevated homeless student and kindergarten enrollment numbers. Sills said that he first alerted FinCom Chair Mike Seibert two weeks prior to the presentation “when it became clear two sets of numbers that impact enrollment” would carry financial ramifications.

To read about Sills’ September 10 report to the School Committee on these same issues visit: http://www.thebedfordcitizen.org/2013/09/12/schools-open-with-more-kindergarteners-homeless-students-than-expected/

Addressing the issue of the homeless population first, Sills said that the number of school-age children residing at the Bedford Plaza hotel has risen from a high of 66 students last year to 108 students this fall. The 2013-14 school year is the third in which the Plaza Hotel has housed displaced families.

“Out of that 108,” Sills said, “we have 42 students registered right now in [Bedford’s] grades K-12 and we have 54 students who we’re transporting to their home districts.”

Sills added that several school-age children at the Plaza have not yet registered for any school—in Bedford or in their home districts—and that the Assistant Principals from all four Bedford schools have met with the affected families to try to help them navigate the registration process. The Superintendent said he does not know whether the unregistered students would ultimately add to classroom numbers or to transportation costs.

“The children of displaced families have the right by the McKinney-Vento Act to either attend the [schools of] the district in which they are temporarily housed or they have the right to be transported back to their home district to continue to go to school where they have been going— the last town in which they had  permanent housing. There is usually a cost-share between that former district and the new district,” Sills explained.

“How does the State decide which town is going to bear the cost of a [homeless] child?” asked FinCom member Bob Kenney. “Why Bedford? Why not Weston? Why not Framingham?”

Sills replied, “About two weeks ago, we had a three hour meeting at the Plaza Hotel with our two legislators and representatives from the Department of Public Housing who are in charge of this to ask the exact same questions. We feel that there’s an unfair burden in Bedford. There’s no question there’s an unfair burden—we have 108 kids.

“Last year when we had 66 [kids], we were told that was 4% of the statewide homeless, school-age population,” Sills continued. “It’s a challenge for the schools. I want to make it clear that we’re complaining about the inequity, not about the kids. The kids are very welcome and we’ll do the best by them that we can. But, we recognize this is a burden on Bedford’s finances. . . . The cost estimate for transportation [of homeless students to their home districts] for September alone is $45,370.

“This is all supposed to be reimbursed 100% a year later,” Sills said.

“Is the cost of schooling the kids in Bedford reimbursable?” asked FinCom member Stephen Carluccio.

“No, and that’s the subject of one of the very concrete proposals we made to our representatives,” Sills replied. “We’ve also asked about getting a healthcare worker there [at the hotel]. The State finally put a social worker there every day, but there are [also] costs to the schools. [For example], our English Language Learner (ELL) numbers have gone beyond what we presented to you last year.

“There are approximately 100 districts that are experiencing this—Bedford is not alone,” Sills added. “There’s been a real paucity of availability of any kind of units of affordable housing. [Places like the Plaza are] supposed to be a temporary measure. The State’s goal for 2014 is to find [more-permanent] housing for every displaced family. Whether they will achieve it, we don’t know.

“Bedford is one of many districts that have hotels that have offered to be temporary housing for displaced persons. The Department of Public Housing is going to take whatever they can get because otherwise, these people are out on the streets.”

“That’s a business venture for the hotels,” FinCom’s Kenney said.

“That may be,” replied Sills. “In fact, it costs $2,400 a month [for the State] to house one family—in one room. Keep in mind, these are families with 2 or 3 or 4 kids, living for 6 months in one room, with only a microwave oven. It’s not an economical solution because, for half of that, you could probably get an apartment for rent.

“We asked about that,” Sills added. “Why aren’t they subsidizing apartments instead? The answer is that they’re afraid if they do that, the bottom will fall out completely: people will give up their homes so they can get subsidized rent. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know but that was the explanation.

“Our legislators are very concerned about how this is impacting Bedford,” Sills assured the Finance Committee. “They’re very concerned about how this is impacting the residents [of the Plaza Hotel] who don’t have access—if they come from Lowell, there’s no public transportation to Lowell [from Bedford]— and who don’t live in a place that’s really set up for indigent people. They didn’t even have laundry facilities [at the Plaza] and there are no laundromats in Bedford. It’s only thanks to the volunteer work of many of the churches in town and others that they got washers and dryers about two weeks ago.”

“It’s not a good situation for the residents and it’s certainly not a good situation for us,” Sills concluded. “We’ll continue to work with our legislators to push back and try to get some relief but in the meantime, this is the situation.”

As for the issue of kindergarten enrollment, Sills said that 199 students were registered over the summer in nine kindergarten classes— up from eight classes last year. Last year, the Schools anticipated the need for a ninth kindergarten class and budgeted for it. However, even with the additional classroom, enrollments for eight of the nine kindergarten classes exceed optimal limits of 18-20 and now have 22 or 23 students per classroom. Teaching assistants have been added, Sills said, and Davis School Principal Beth Benoit believes that additional adults in the classrooms will make a difference.

Sills added that the administration is working to ascertain whether the higher enrollment is a trend or a bubble and will use what is learned to forecast future kindergarten numbers.

  • Kim Siebert Macphail

    To clarify: This comment was made by a citizen, not THE Bedford Citizen, It is a handle the commenter adopted to identify him/herself.

  • Lalad915

    Agreed Joe P!

  • velvinette

    Also I know what I suggested is a long-term policy issue but we have to think long term also, and get non-working policies changed.

  • velvinette

    I agree we need to think about the welfare of these people. When my kids entered the Bedford schools, 22 or 23 kids per class was normal. And the bill for transporting kids back to their districts is not that high. Many of our buses, I’ve read, drive half empty, partly because so many parents drive their kids or high school kids have cars now. Perhaps we could make up that extra cost by keeping closer track of who is on the buses and who is not. (I know I’m suggesting more work here!) Anyhow, I do not think the hotel would have done this if it had enough customers. As I said in the town forum recently, it is not a good use of that space. By today’s standards even having a hotel there at all is probably a zoning violation. Also, since these people are being housed at $2,400 a month, roughly twice what it would cost for an apt. with actual rooms, a bathroom, kitchen, probably some kind of yard or at least sidewalks outside, the state’s argument is questionable. They say they are not providing subsidized apartments because the people wanting them would go up. It would have to more than double to make that a loss, because right now they are paying double what they should pay. And quality of life is much less for the people involved. *And* how many people actually want to give up their home for state subsidized housing? Most people love their homes and will hold onto them if at all possible.

  • Forch

    Can we not pass that zoning restriction right now?

  • Nancy Wolk

    I am concerned with two factors in this:
    1) the town received an influx of students with little time to add space in the classrooms for this
    2) the calls from town to “do something” about the transient population.

    As to the first factor:
    We need to have clear guidelines from the state when the state is placing a transient population into the town and how to address the schooling needs. We need to make sure the classroom size does not get out of control. This is important as several studies have shown that smaller class size improves student performance and knowledge retention. I give kudos to Principal Benoit and Superintendent Sills for adding more teacher aides for the students.

    The second factor concerns me more. Poverty is not fair. I am frustrated to see Bedford residents stating concerns about resource demands, unfair deployment of tax money and implying the transient populations are causing more police calls. While I agree it is unfair, the response I would expect is one of caring, but not one of not in my backyard. Let’s try to find solutions for this instead of attacking those who are in the homeless population.

  • Elias

    The Bedford Plaza Hotel is a transient hotel meant for business and leisure travel. If our zoning bylaws allow hotel owners to convert their property into multifamily housing projects or homeless shelters something needs to be done. Over 50 residents signed a complaint Monday night which was sent to the building inspector. The next step is to call one of our 5 Selectman and ask that this issue be put on their next agenda. We should also call the planning board and ask they consider an amendment to the by law to stop hotel owners from converting their properties to homless shelters. The bylaw is vague. It needs to be fixed. Call your Selectman, demand that they sit down with Town Council and the Planning Board to craft an amendment. Nothing will be done unless the people of Bedford make it happen.

  • Joe Piantedosi

    Hotels are permitted for short term rentals not long term housing. This was a court case on this a couple of years ago in Mashpee. One suggestion i would like to make is to introduce legislation that would allow a municipality to pass a zoning restriction with no grandfather clause that would limit hotels and motels from turning their facilities into long term housing at our expense.

  • Kris

    The meeting with State Representative Ken Gordon, our Chief of Police and School Superintendent Jon Sills Monday night was very informative on these issues. It was also very well attended (appeared to be at least 100 people). Another meeting is being planned soon. I urge anyone interested in these issues to attend.

    The Plaza situation may be ongoing. It has a contract of opportunity with the state and it simply may be renewed when it’s up. The homeless families residing in the hotel are receiving consistent attention from the town, the police, social workers and volunteers to ensure adherence to living conditions etc. as provided by the law. I think it fair to say that there was a shared feeling that while the hotel owner is benefiting tremendously from this contract, the families living there and Bedford residents were being unfairly affected by it.

    As for the influx of students into the schools, Mr. Sills suggested that new students are coming from a number of sources and that the School Board is conducting a survey to better understand what caused the increase in enrollment.

    A tremendous amount of information, thinking and passion was shared at this meeting and many who attended (and some who did not) are now having conversations about these topics via email or social media. I would encourage as many residents as possible who have a stake in these issues or who wish to voice their opinions to attend these meetings. Only by people sacrificing their time to be present will we get the attention we need to get something done.

  • Forch

    Curious where all these families came from all of a sudden. Most likely, they arrived from another town right before school started. It’s probably worth finding out why and how.
    It also says it is supposed to be a temporary measure. So how long has the typical family been at the Plaza? It might be a year or more.
    What about non-school resource demands on the Town? These might be hard to quantify, but a perusal of the police logs could be insightful. Is the state reimbursing for that?
    And as was pointed out in the piece – some items in the schools simply can’t be reimbursed, either because they cannot be quantified or simply because the resources aren’t there (like space for all those kids).
    Nice to hear our local officials are concerned about it. But what matters is what are they doing about it (aside from shrugging and saying it is what it is).

  • xine

    Any insight from anyone who met with Ken Gordon last night?

  • Greg

    This is sickening, we focus so much on sign bylaws when we should be focused on this uncontrolled unfair deployment of our tax money. I can’t possibly believe that it is safe for that many people to be living in one room, aren’t there dept of health regulations to govern the situation? Why isn’t this charity deductible for the actual tax payers?

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