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Mass. Districts Feeling Pinch of Foster Youths Moved to New Schools

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Massachusetts school systems saddled with the rising costs of serving foster children who transfer from other districts may soon get some financial relief.

The state has a fund for reimbursing districts for the costs of educating children placed in foster homes outside their home districts. But there has never been enough money in it, leaving districts to absorb much of the cost of serving students who often arrive with no advance notice and a variety of emotional and educational needs.

Studies show that children in the foster-care system often lag behind their peers academically, and many qualify for costly special education programs.

In an effort to ease that burden, the Massachusetts legislature is considering proposals that would double the current level of funding for the program to $16.5 million.

Meanwhile, some districts are feeling the crunch more than others.

"There's nobody in this district who would deny those kids those services," said Robert J. Siminski, the assistant superintendent of the 2,178-student Athol-Royalston schools, in the western part of the state. "But it's a question of whether the state is paying its proper share."

The district's special education budget has doubled since 1994, from $1.3 million to $2.6 million a year. Mr. Siminski attributes the increase to the influx of children in foster care, particularly those who need special education services that the district can't provide.

In those cases, school systems contract with private providers or use public programs outside the district. Transportation for those students adds to the expense.

Other, hidden costs are incurred when students in foster care transfer, Mr. Siminski said. "When they're taken out quickly, we don't get our textbooks back."

Reform Threatened

Of the 11,000 foster children in Massachusetts, roughly 60 percent are living in foster homes outside their hometowns, according to Lorraine Carli, the spokeswoman for the state social services department.

Even if the state account were fully funded, the methods used for reimbursing districts don't capture the true number of children in foster care who transfer in and out of the schools during the academic year, officials said.

Foster homes are easier to find in lower-income towns like Athol, where housing is more affordable and people take in foster children to earn extra money when work is scarce. "There are some people in this district who use foster children as a cottage industry," Mr. Siminski said. "Some people have eight or nine foster children."

In the past four years, the special education budget for the Holliston district in southern Massachusetts has jumped from about $500,000 to more than $1 million, largely because of an increase in out-of-district foster children, said Michael Gilbert, a school board member.

"We don't want to be seen as heartless," he said. "But this is becoming an issue that could derail education reform in Massachusetts."

A report released in February by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents said skyrocketing special education costs are eating up money that should be used for reforms in the regular education program. The increase in the number of children in foster care with complex needs is contributing to the problem, the report said.

Pilot Programs

Nationwide, there are about 500,000 children in foster care, and the numbers have risen in recent years. Even though caseworkers aim to keep children in their home districts when moving them into foster care, experts say finding appropriate placements close to home is increasingly difficult.

"If they could be placed in the same communities, the schools wouldn't be identifying these kids as 'not theirs,'" said Susan Stelk, the education coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.

In spite of the problems, the state is working to improve the chances that children in foster care will be successful in school.

This school year, six districts received small grants of about $50,000 from the state to operate pilot programs that educate school employees about the foster-care process.

The grants also provide services to children in foster care, such as transportation, so they can remain in their home schools for the duration of the year.

Some schools are also working harder to get foster parents involved in the children's education.

The pilot districts will receive funding next year, but will eventually have to come up with local money to support the programs.

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