Budget Calls for Funds for Students Displaced by Hurricane Maria

By Roosevelt Skerrit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Amanda Kaufman
Boston University Statehouse Program

This article was originally published in the Sentinel & Enterprise.

BOSTON — School districts in Fitchburg, Leominster and Lowell, among others, will receive additional funding to supplement the costs of educating the almost 2,5000 students who have arrived in Massachusetts following last year’s hurricanes.

Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed a $15 million budget bill for school districts that have accepted large numbers of students who fled Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Fitchburg, Leominster and Lowell school districts have accepted 79, 85 and 86 Puerto Rican students, respectively since September, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Fitchburg schools Superintendent Andre Ravenelle said he was pleased the Legislature recognized the need to provide school districts with more funding, but it’s not clear just yet if the state will provide enough to cover the unexpected costs of educating additional students.

Bonnie Baer-Simahk, the district’s English Language Learner director, said the district is in the preliminary process of building a roster of the Puerto Rican and Virgin Island students to submit to the state’s education department.

While unsure of what the district’s allocation might be, she said it was good news the money was allocated and that it will be allowed to rollover into the next school year budget to provide long-term funding for the new students.

Assessing how the district should address the Puerto Rican students is particularly difficult, Ravenelle said, because the students are scattered across different grades and schools in the district and speak English with varying levels of proficiency.

“If our student-teacher ratio is already maxed out at a particular school and 12 of those students are at one school, I’ll be looking at having to add additional [English Language Learner] teaching support,” Ravenelle said.

Ravenelle stressed that only a small number of school districts have been burdened with accepting additional students and described those districts as “already over-challenged and under-funded.”

The state previously split $60,000 among 12 school districts accepting Puerto Rican evacuees under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Ravenelle said the $5,000 the district received from that appropriation helped Fitchburg schools continue to provide clothing, learning materials and other resources homeless students may require to attend school dances and participate in sports.

Baer-Simahk also said the district won an additional $5,000 grant that is being used to teach English to the students at the high school.

More than 15 percent of Fitchburg residents are Puerto Rican, according to an October 2017 study by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, said in a statement “The more than 100 students who had to flee their homes in Puerto Rico after the horrific impacts of Hurricane Maria have found safe harbor in the Lowell Public Schools, and I am confident that these children will receive a top-notch educational experience at LPS.”

The $15 million supplemental appropriations bill is in addition to the $15 million Baker allocated for school districts accepting students fleeing Puerto Rico in his fiscal year 2019 budget and will be distributed among districts based on the number of additional students they take.

John Robertson, deputy legislative director at the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the organization appreciates “the governor filing a supplemental budget bill for this year, including money in his budget recommendation for next year because clearly cities and towns didn’t anticipate having to find space in classrooms for students from Puerto Rico who were displaced.”

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