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Auditor: Foster children need education support

GREENFIELD — A year ago the mayor petitioned the state auditor’s office to reimburse the city for the $710,000 it had to spend to educate the 47 foster care children living here, with no support from the state. 

Mayor William Martin argued it was an unfunded mandate and the state was obligated to cover those ever-rising costs. The mayor said Greenfield was in a particular financial bind: All of the group foster homes  located in Franklin County are in the city, leaving the taxpayers of Greenfield to cover the entire bill. 

On Tuesday, the Office of State Auditor Suzanne Bump released a report that calls to attention the issues that the commonwealth’s foster children face in finding equitable education because of current, but generally legal, funding structures — while heavily citing Greenfield as a source of its conclusions.

“Social workers and local education officials are all doing their best to provide a reasonable life and educational experience for these children,” said Ben Tafoya, director of the state auditor’s Division of Local Mandates which oversaw this report. “It’s just very challenging, and without the proper resources we doubt they’ll be very successful.”

The auditor’s office did not find that Martin and the city’s plea to cover its foster children’s education costs was an unfunded mandate. Instead, it did provide the state with the research to show elected officials and policymakers the significant conundrum communities across Massachusetts face annually. 

“Too often, the educational success of these students is hindered by a complex bureaucracy and a lack of resources and expertise, and this burden is particularly acute in low-income communities,” Bump said in a statement about the report.

The Division of Local Mandates concludes with four findings and 12 recommendations, with the goal to “shine a light on ideas to improve the system, and spark a conversation, leading to better outcomes for these vulnerable children and the communities that care for them,” according to the report. 

The Division of Local Mandates found: local school districts expend significant resources to fund educational services for students in foster care; school districts devote considerable time and effort on the issue; the Department of Children and Families should ensure its staff is trained and follows procedures; and proper transportation arrangements are a challenge for districts. 

“The fact they listened, they acted, and auditor Bump makes these recommendations similar to what our concerns were is very gratifying,” Martin said. “Obviously, the Legislature can put a topping to this satisfaction by providing some funds specific to these concerns.”

The report states school districts across the state pay at least $56 million to educate the 6,800 foster children in the commonwealth. 

“This report brings to light the unique challenges and costs associated with providing an education to students in foster care, and the need for the state to provide equitable resources without additional strain on local communities,” Greenfield Public Schools Superintendent Jordana Harper said.

Harper said she appreciated the auditor’s “very thoughtful response to the complex challenges facing Greenfield and other school districts, and call for much-needed relief.”

“If we are able to find money to replace and supplement federal funding deficits like we’ve done just recently for about $30 million then we should be able to find funds to take care of children,” Martin said Tuesday, referencing the money state just secured for heating assistance to offset a lack of funding from the federal program. 

He said he hopes state legislators will advance the cause in the middle of budget season following this state report to pay for what he has seen for years as an unfunded mandate. He said revenue from gambling could be earmarked for this purpose. 

“Take some of that money and do something that will yield better lives in the future and impact lives today,” Martin said. “Let’s not start any new programs. Let’s agree to fund the programs we already have.” 

The report concludes educating children in foster care and state care programs “presents an extraordinary challenge to the school systems of Massachusetts.” 

Students transitioned into foster care have been traumatized, taken from the homes they have known, and frequently moved during their time in the programs,” the report reads. “To have any measure of academic success, these vulnerable children require high levels of educational and emotional support.”

When children in foster care are moved to another community, they are entitled to continue to go to school from where they came. 

The cost can quickly add up  depending on where the student previously lived. 

Greenfield paid $219,000 on transportation for foster children in the 2017-18 school year, according to self-reported numbers to the state — which ranks third in the state, behind Brockton at $293,000 and Boston at $721,000. 

Since Greenfield serves as the unofficial county seat and home to social services, it takes on an additional burden that leads to higher transportation costs for Greenfield Public Schools, the Office of the State Auditor said. Greenfield is home to about 30 group homes, the mayor said.  

Transporting foster care students to school may turn out to be an unfunded mandate, the report says, but the state has not yet ruled on this specific issue.

The Division of Local Mandates recommends the state “assume the full expense of providing education services to students in foster care and state care.” It also calls for the state to provide transportation funding for all children in foster care. 

The state called for the Department of Children and Families and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to collaborate on maintaining a list of students in foster care; oftentimes students move between districts without notice to the districts that were serving them, the report notes. 

The auditor’s office calls for the Department of Children and Families and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to coordinate more on several issues around foster care and ensuring students have what they need when they arrive to whichever school they attend. 

“This report offers concrete steps the commonwealth can take to ensure these students’ academic ne remain front-and-center,” Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said in a statement. “I look forward to working with auditor Bump, lawmakers, and our state’s educational leaders to make these recommendations a reality.”

Rises in special education costs are often directly tied to some of the high expenses to districts. 

“It recognizes critical factors such as the extraordinary cost of transportation, increased likelihood of special education services, and the need for districts to receive timely information to provide appropriate services to newly-arriving students,” Harper said. “These implications send a powerful message at a time that the Legislature is grappling with how to address the gaps in our state funding formula.”

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

413-772-0261, ext. 264