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Proper Transportation Arrangements are a Challenge for Districts that Must Return Students to their Schools of Origin.

Among the report's recommendations, it calls on the Commonwealth to fully fund transportation reimbursements for these students, seeking available federal reimbursements for some of the funds.

Table of Contents

Overview

As mentioned in the narrative above, the two major pieces of federal legislation—Fostering Connections (2008) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (2015)—codified as policy that transitions in educational placements for students in foster care should be minimized and that, unless otherwise determined, remaining in the school of origin is deemed to be in the best interest of the student. This arrangement implies that the district of origin has responsibility to transport the student between the new placement home and the school of origin. For larger districts, this might mean transport within the confines of the school district. For most children, these arrangements will require transportation between districts. Providing transportation between districts is challenging for several reasons. Educational transportation companies have difficulties finding drivers and vehicles. The requirement for foster children results in large numbers of point-to-point trips, which have a relatively high cost. Additionally, a significant number of students require special equipment or a single-occupant vehicle to meet needs of their IEP. Because school districts have significant difficulties finding transportation services for these students, and are left with no alternative, DCF has indicated that its professional staff spend significant time transporting students to school placements. While contemplated in federal law, this expends time that could be spent on activities more closely aligned with the agency’s mission. It is understood that some of the school transportation provided by social workers relates to emergency placements and that they are providing services for students that are housed temporarily while awaiting a more permanent foster setting.

Recommendations

1. The Commonwealth should provide transportation funding for children in foster care. School districts do not have control over whether a foster care student is placed into or removed from the district. Because the foster care population is fluid, it is difficult for a school district to budget properly for unexpected transportation costs of students in foster care or state custody. Direct and full funding of transportation will remedy these problems while equitably and accurately allocating costs.47 The initial year’s expenses are documented in Appendix E.

2. DCF and DESE should complete the process to provide proper documentation for the Commonwealth to receive reimbursement for transportation expenses under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. While the reimbursement only offers a portion of the funds expended, it could help offset some of the expenses incurred by school districts to comply with state and federal laws. We applaud DCF and DESE for the effort underway to modify the federal plan to allow for reimbursement to Massachusetts for expenses incurred by school districts.

3. The legislature and stakeholders should continue the work of the commission examining aspects of school transportation operations and funding. The expense of out-of-district transportation requires a comprehensive examination that includes not only costs related to foster and state care but also McKinney-Vento, vocational, and special education requirements. There are also significant in-district transportation requirements for regional and municipally based school districts. The state’s fiscal year 2019 budget includes a requirement for a legislative commission with membership that includes education community stakeholders to examine a set of these issues. This is an excellent approach that deserves speedy action.

4. In addition to fully funding required transportation reimbursements, the legislature should consider funding an appropriate number of subject matter experts for DESE to provide substantial technical assistance to districts as they seek to control costs while enhancing service delivery. For example, DESE does not currently possess the staff resources to provide transportation planning expertise to districts. The lack of this type of technical resource means many districts are on their own in terms of best practices and strategies to manage operating costs. There is still widespread concern among school districts about the lack of competitive bidders for transportation contracts. There is a clear need for the Commonwealth to assist districts in developing strategies to increase the supply of transportation bidders and, through regulation or regional cooperation, control the soaring cost of out-of-district services.

47. It should be noted that the Commonwealth’s failure to provide funding for the transportation of foster care students may be an unfunded mandate under the Local Mandate Law, G.L. c. 29, § 27c. This is a similar situation to that of the McKinney-Vento finding by Auditor Bump in 2011-2012. As the requirement is tied to federal funding under Title I, the need to provide transit to these students means this could potentially be a requirement passed by the state to local districts without offsetting funding. Massachusetts received over $220 million in Title I, Part A grants in each of the fiscal years 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Date published: April 23, 2019
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