Schools and services for special education and homeless students are an expensive proposition, but getting them there has become more than half the battle.
Special transportation costs for special education students and homeless students has ramped up 12 percent each year for the last three years, for a total of 36 percent in three years.
The bargain becomes even more difficult in that the money doesn’t come from the schools, it comes right out of the already-thin city budget.
“I don’t know what the solution is,” said Mayor Tom Ambrosino. “The law is pretty clear. Transportation costs like these are significant…They’ve increased 12 percent year over year for the last three years.”
Added Superintendent Paul Dakin, “These costs are huge. The transiency factor and the homelessness factor are the two largest driving factors in the increases…What has put us so much higher is the homelessness and just the number of kids moving into the district with [special education plans] that already require transportation.”
Students who become homeless are one of the most expensive groups to transport.
This year, 30 homeless students accounted for $225,257 in transportation costs. That was about $7,508 per student annually. It costs the city $1,251 per day to transport those students to Revere schools.
State law requires that if a student’s family becomes homeless and they’re moved to a shelter in a different community, they have the option of continuing at their old school or going to the school in their new community.
Most of the time, they choose their old school.
The law requires that the old school district and the new school district split the costs of transportation for that student – who is transported in a regular taxi cab many times.
Ambrosino said changing that law in any way would probably trigger a lot of backlash from housing advocates and may not be fair anyway.
“I think you would have homelessness advocates who would say we’re disrupting the child’s education because the family is homeless,” he said. “They would say we are discriminating…That’s the argument from homelessness advocates and it’s a compelling argument.”
Meanwhile, the biggest special transportation cost lies with special education students who have placements outside the school district.
In those cases, students have a disability that it has been deemed the school cannot accommodate adequately. Those disabilities range from severe mental impairments to physical handicaps to reading problems.
In Revere, special education students are transported to specialized schools like Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown and to toney private schools like Beverly Landmark School.
This year, there were 104 students with outplacements who required transportation every day. Those costs came to $786,655 in total, and $7,564 per student annually. Each day, to transport every outplaced student, the city pays $4,370.
Dakin said he feels that a lot of the outplacements from Revere are justified, and that there are few – if any – frivolous outplacements. He said the district is very aggressive about fighting what they believe is extravagant and also about providing more and more services inside the district to accommodate all kinds of special needs.
“With 90 percent of the cases that place a kid outside of school, we’re in agreement,” he said. “We don’t have a program in the school to accommodate them…We’re in a constant battle fighting what we perceive as transportation requirements that we don’t see as part of a disability. A kid that has a reading disability we may not feel needs special transportation services…We scrutinize as much as we can within the law, but sometimes we’re getting kids from other places that may not scrutinize as much as we do.”
The only other special transportation category is with special education students that require special transportation to Revere schools. That is also very expensive.
There are 160 kids this year who require transportation as part of their special education plan, and at a cost of $646,303. It costs $4,039 annually per student for that transport.
“Because of a [special education plan], a team has decided that child needs transport to and from school and the law allows for it,” said Dakin. “A good number are behavioral issues. Some of these are bad enough that we pick them up in a small bus or a taxi in an effort to keep order and protect others on the regular bus.”
As a counterpoint, Ambrosino said that the school district goes far beyond what is required in transporting regular education students, and at a much higher cost.
“We could stop that today and save millions of dollars,” he said. “That’s a policy position from the School Committee. We want to transport our kids. We would eliminate 90 percent of our transportation costs if we stopped regular bus transportation that goes above and beyond the law.”
Dakin said he can see the issue both ways, but doesn’t know if changing the special transportation law is the right thing for homeless students or special education students.
“I can flip to both sides,” he said. “When I put on my bean counter hat, I think we may [be going too far], but I also think that if I had a child in these situations, I would want these services. In our country, the burden of public education is on the state and right now that’s a promise that comes with transportation.”