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Baker will seek funds to address influx of Puerto Rican students

Hundreds of children have arrived in Massachusetts from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
gov. charlie baker, charlie baker, massachusetts governor
Gov. Charlie Baker. File Photo

Gov. Charlie Baker plans to request additional school funding from the Legislature to help cities pay for the education of hundreds of children who have arrived from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria battered the Caribbean island in September.

The administration sent a memo on Tuesday to municipalities and local emergency management directors outlining various services and points of contact for families arriving in Massachusetts from Puerto Rico as evacuees.

The guidance, which came from Baker's budget office, indicated that the governor will file for additional funding under the Chapter 70 program for fiscal 2018 "to ensure that school districts can draw down additional state aid for these new students, as needed."

The money, according to the administration, will be dispersed based on school districts' current per-pupil funding levels and account for whether the incoming students need special services, such as English language learning classes.

"We will continue to monitor these enrollment numbers through FY18 and beyond and seek additional aid for district experiencing significant enrollment increases as necessary," the memo states.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says that 880 students evacuating from Puerto Rico have enrolled in public schools around Massachusetts since the hurricane, with the largest populations locating in Springfield, Worcester, Boston, Holyoke, New Bedford and Lawrence.

While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many Puerto Ricans have fled their homes for Massachusetts, the governor's office said that as of Wednesday morning approximately 1,300 individuals or families had applied for or received assistance from the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

The Chapter 70 budget for fiscal 2018 was $4.75 billion.

The Executive Office of Administration and Finance could not say Wednesday how much additional funding the administration would seek, or when the request would be made - an aide said only that it would be made in the coming months.

"The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to supporting disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, and is working to provide access to critical services for self-evacuees arriving in the Commonwealth from Puerto Rico," the memo stated.

Baker convened a task force in late September with officials from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the executive offices of Housing and Community Development, Health and Human Services and Education to prepare to welcome Puerto Ricans temporarily or permanently fleeing their island.

As students continue to arrive and enroll in schools, some local leaders have reached out to the state seeking help.

New Bedford Mayor John Mitchell wrote to Gov. Baker on Halloween to express his need for school relief after 51 students from Puerto Rico enrolled in city schools. Mitchell specifically asked for the state to relax the Oct. 1 deadline by which school district must report their enrollments for the purpose of calculating Chapter 70 funding levels for the 2018-2019 school year.

Mitchell also asked the state to use the rental voucher program to assist evacuees in finding a place to live. "Not unlike other cities, we do not have the permanent housing stock to accommodate large-scale relocation to the city, and there is not sufficient temporary shelter to offer," he wrote.

The governor's memo on Tuesday details a temporary shelter assistance program run through the Federal Emergency Management Agency that makes short-term hotel vouchers available to disaster survivors, and offers rental and housing assistance available through FEMA.

The Department of Housing and Community Development has also told local housing authorities that they can extend the 21-day guest restriction and relax verification requirements and unit occupancy standards if a tenant requests to permanently add a member to their household.

The memo also includes instructions and steps evacuees and local officials can take to help newly arrived Puerto Ricans obtain driver's licenses, access health care or utilize career centers to find employment.

 
 
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