SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — It’s a scene vividly described last month by South Portland school Superintendent Suzanne Godin.
“If you go out on [Interstate] 295 between 7 and 7:15 a.m., you will see lines of school buses heading north,” Godin said during a joint workshop of city councilors and school board members.
The buses are not always full, but are needed to fulfill requirements of the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which requires school districts to provide education services and transportation for homeless students.
The act is not new; it was absorbed into the federal No Child Left Behind Act a decade ago. What is new are increased demands on school districts collaborating to ensure students make it to class as far as an hour away from where their families now live.
Sharon Pray, who coordinates homeless services for Portland students, said she and transportation department officials are trying to get 11 students to class in city schools and arrange for three students to attend classes in other school districts.
“We don’t want to disrupt their education program again,” Pray said.
Portland Health and Human Services Director Doug Gardner said an increase in homeless families had led to temporary placements of families in South Portland and Westbrook.
In South Portland, the availability of motel rooms on Main Street and U.S. Route 1 has eased the shelter crunch in Portland, but created challenges for South Portland school officials, who find it impossible to budget for the demand — and illegal to ignore it.
After a Nov. 26 Maine Department of Education workshop in Augusta on compliance with McKinney-Vento provisions, South Portland Assistant School Superintendent Kathy Germani warned the cost of transportation for homeless students is a budget wildcard.
“I find some weeks I am getting three to five calls from shelter representatives in Portland,” Germani said last month during a joint workshop of the City Council and School Board.
Germani, Pray and Scarborough Assistant Director of Special Education Christopher Rohde have coordinated services for homeless students in their districts, as required by law. At the Maine Department of Education, homeless education services are coordinated by Jacinda Goodwin.
Goodwin and department spokesman David Connerty-Marin did not respond to questions regarding increased needs for homeless students in the state, and which areas may be most affected.
If homeless families are arriving from out of state, then students are enrolled in local schools within three days. The McKinney-Vento Act requires rapid enrollment and waives a requirement for birth certificates and immunization records, as a way to ensure education is not disrupted.
If a family from Maine is designated as homeless — even when staying with other family members or friends — students are given an option to re-enroll in the school system they have moved to, or to keep attending classes in what is called the “school of origin.”
The designation can last a year, even if families find stable shelter or relocate again. If a family chooses to keep children enrolled in the school of origin, the law requires that district to provide up to an hour’s transportation to get students to school.
The reality is school districts collaborate to ease travel burdens. The back and forth added more than more than 48,300 miles of bus travel in South Portland last year, according to Germani.
Demand has ebbed this fall in the city, but last year, Germani said, up to 26 families met the homeless designation requiring the School Department to provide or help provide transportation for students. Assistance was needed for an average of six months at a time.
Godin, the South Portland school chief, said districts can bill each other for transportation services, but South Portland Finance Manager Greg L’Heureux estimated the cost at $1 a mile. Germani said it could be triple that because the district uses spare drivers and redirects buses to carry students.
Through mid-October this year, Germani said, the number of families in need of assistance was reduced to five. But she, Godin and Pray said demand is unpredictable and tracking homeless students can be difficult.
“There is no way of knowing. It can happen in September, October or May,” Godin said at the workshop in South Portland.
In Portland, Pray has recently assumed the role of local coordinator for homeless student services.
“How do we predict how much money to put in? You can look at trends [of homeless students] over the years,” she said.
The trend is increasing in Portland, Pray said, and she will try to extrapolate current needs into next year’s budget.
The law requires districts to provide up to an hour of transportation for students. To reach a town like Parsonsfield, on the New Hampshire border in northwestern York County, collaboration is critical, school officials said.
“We try to be creative, maybe meet a bus,” said School Administrative District 55 Supervisor Sylvia Pease, who administers a district covering Baldwin, Cornish, Hiram, Porter and Parsonsfield.
Pease said most homeless students in her district found shelter with families or at the York County Shelter in Alfred. Whenever possible, the district encourages parents to drive children to school and reimburses them at 44 cents a mile.
Because SAD 55 outsources its transportation based on mileage set above basic demands, Pease said the district has not had to increase spending to provide the needed transportation.
Pray said Portland officials also reimburse parents for mileage and sometimes use taxis to get students to city schools of origin. Students headed out of town may meet buses from neighboring districts at vocational training schools, and siblings sometimes ride together to one school and then take buses to another.
Parents who can drive children to schools are reimbursed at the Internal Revenue Service rate of 55 cents per mile, Pray said.
Pray and Germani said department transportation directors, including Dan Lamarre in South Portland, and Kevin Whittemore and Kevin Mallory in Portland, are adept at juggling schedules and drivers to provide services.
In Scarborough, Rohde is turning over coordination of homeless student services to Alison Marchese, the director of special services. He said the district does not receive placements from Portland shelters, but still has to accommodate about a dozen students annually.
The cost may be more predictable, bit knowing when alternative arrangements are needed for homeless students remains a guess.
“It really can be kind of random,” Rohde said.