School Transportation News: New data issued on homeless students, school budgets and transportation

By Michelle Fisher

Though the rising number of homeless students has been well documented since the recession-era spike, new U.S. Department of Education data shows that record numbers are enrolled in public schools. As a result, school transportation departments are feeling the pinch of providing bus service for this population.
According to the data summary released on Monday, the majority of homeless students — 75 percent — are living “doubled-up” (multiple families living together out of necessity, not choice), 6 percent are staying in hotels or motels and another 6 percent are living on their own, apart from their parents. The September 2014 report provides a summary of the 2012-2013 state data collection required by the DOE for the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program.

In recent months, school districts in several states have released their own data on the number of homeless children they are mandated to transport under McKinney-Vento, a law passed in 1987 that gives students the right to maintain access to their school of origin no matter where their family is seeking temporary shelter.

A new survey and report by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless released in March shows that the number of homeless students in Illinois has skyrocketed in recent years. Updated figures from the Illinois State Board of Education indicate that public schools statewide identified 54,892 homeless students during the 2012-2013 school year, which is up 109 percent since 2009, according to the Chicago Coalition’s report, “Gaps in Educational Supports for Illinois Homeless Students.”

Thirty-six of the 54 school districts or educational regional offices that receive federal funding under McKinney-Vento to help serve homeless students responded to the coalition’s statewide survey. Among key findings was that 21 percent of respondents said fewer than 50 percent of homeless students get transportation assistance to and from school, and 56 percent said more than half of the enrolled homeless students who need assistance are unable to access transportation to extracurricular activities.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is reportedly pushing for Illinois officials to restore $3 million in state funding for homeless student education grants.

Impacts in Other Areas

In Massachusetts, school officials and advocates for the homeless agree that the shortfall in funding to assist these populations is a growing problem. The state continues to house families in motels, say school officials, and the costs of transporting homeless students to school are straining their budgets. Transportation can run into six figures for communities with more motel space, according to one report.

To cover itself, the city of West Springfield added nearly $100,000 in funding for homeless student transportation to its 2015 fiscal year budget. Schools superintendent Russell D. Johnston said there are 109 homeless students enrolled in the public school system, with about 30 students living in hotels and motels. He estimated the total cost of homeless student transportation is $140,000, including the $98,000 in supplemental appropriations and the $40,000 budgeted since the 2014 fiscal year.

West Springfield pays half of the cost and the neighboring community pays the other, Johnston explained. The state of Massachusetts reimburses the city every fiscal year, and this year’s funding amounts to $61,897, based on last year’s homeless student population.

In Virginia, the Henrico County School District transported roughly 600 of the 1,400 Richmond-area homeless students counted last year, according to Transportation Director Josh Davis. And last year Henrico was one of 24 school districts statewide to receive federal grants that can be partially utilized for transportation. Yet other school systems pay for services from their local budgets.

Last summer school officials in Lincoln, Nebraska, petitioned the city’s Board of Education to purchase four 30-passenger school buses and two vans for the transportation of its homeless students. Lincoln Public School officials argued it would be more cost effective to purchase the vehicles for $250,000 to $300,000 rather than continuing to use taxi service to shuttle homeless kids back and forth. LPS has budgeted $320,000 a year for homeless transportation, according to one report.

In the 2013-2014 school year, the district reported having 359 homeless students, but not all of them relied on school transportation. According to the district’s homeless outreach specialist, Bryan Seck, the breakdown of these homeless student was as follows: 142 lived in shelters, 44 lived in motels, 173 lived with family or friends, and 55 were on their own.

Understanding Guidance on Transportation Expenses

Before the new school year, at least two states issued guidance to their public school systems to inform them of the newly expanded authority of local educational agencies (LEAs) over the use of Title I, Part A funds for services provided to students in temporary housing.

According to a field memo from the New York State Education Department in June, the passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act earlier this year means Title I funds available in the 2014-2015 school year may now be used to meet two McKinney-Vento requirements: (1) the salary for the McKinney-Vento liaison even if that person has no Title I duties, and (2) for transporting students in temporary housing to and from their school of origin; however, Title I funds may not be used to pay for transportation expenses that are reimbursed by the state.

“All students in temporary housing are categorically eligible to receive Title I services and any district with at least one non-participating school must set aside funding to meet the unique needs of students in temporary housing,” stated Roberto Reyes, director of Title I School and Community Services, in the memo.

Reyes noted that LEAs and school districts must review the needs and costs involved in serving homeless students in the current year and use those figures to project for the following year, and specifically suggested school officials multiply the number of homeless students by the Title I, Part A per pupil allocation.

Montana’s guidance on the use of Title I A Funds for Homeless Students, as amended by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, also stated that, “All LEAs that receive Title I, Part A funds MUST set aside a portion of those funds for comparable services to homeless students if they have one or more schools that are not served by or are not eligible for Title I services. Although there is no minimum amount required for this set aside, LEAs are urged to consider the actual cost of providing services to these students and the number of students who must be served when determining the amount of Title I, Part A funds that will be set aside for this use.”

For more information on the use of Title I A Funds for Homeless Students, read this letter from the U.S. Department of Education.