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.

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