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10% Of Louisiana Students Have Now Missed A Month Of School Due To Hurricane Ida

More than 72,000 K-12 students in Louisiana have not returned to the classroom since Hurricane Ida hit late last month.
DCJOHN/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
More than 72,000 K-12 students in Louisiana have not returned to the classroom since Hurricane Ida hit late last month.

More than 72,000 K-12 students in Louisiana have not returned to the classroom since Hurricane Ida hit late last month, Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley told state legislative members during a Tuesday meeting.

Nearly 40% of Louisiana’s public school students experienced building closures in the wake of Hurricane Ida, and most schools reopened within a few weeks. But progress has been slower in the state’s River and Bayou Parishes where power restoration is still ongoing.

Students attending public schools in Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes have now missed at least a month of school, though system leaders said they plan to reopen some buildings as early as this week.

“Frankly, I am impressed with the speed that [reopenings are] taking place,” Brumley told the Senate Education Committee Tuesday. “You look at these classrooms and you think, ‘There’s just no way this could happen.’”

Lafourche opened its least damaged buildings on Monday, and Terrebonne and St. Charles expect to do the same over the next few days. St. John the Baptist, a much smaller district, plans to open all of its schools at the same time on Oct. 11.

Brumley was joined by superintendents from Lafourche and St. Charles Parish public school systems, both of whom delivered their own updates and made specific asks of the state legislature.

Jarod Martin, superintendent of Lafourche Parish Public Schools, said one of his biggest concerns is meeting the state’s required number of instructional minutes. His post-Ida calendar already has no flexibility.

“If one contractor stubs his toe or if I get one report back that says the air quality is not what it needs to be then that delays it,” he said.

For buildings with longer repair timelines, Martin said he’s paired harder hit schools with those that are already operational and will have them share facilities temporarily. But he said that isn’t an option for South Lafourche High School because it's geographically isolated from other schools. Instead, the plan is to repair a limited number of classrooms quickly.

“What that’s going to look like is bare sheetrock, concrete and lightbulbs,” Martin said.

Even if the project stays on schedule, he’ll still have to extend the school year into July to meet the state’s seat time requirements. “After the year that they've had, I don't think that's going to be met well in the community,” he said.

St. Charles Parish Public Schools Superintendent Ken Oertling told legislators he expects the damage to the parish’s public school buildings to total between $40 and $50 million dollars. Nearly 45% of students are currently living outside the parish, Oertling said according to a survey completed by 6,500 of the district’s nearly 10,000 students.

“To see the impact that this has had on our community, our employees and our students is by far the most tragic thing I've ever encountered,” Oertling said.

Given the large number of displaced students from St. Charles Parish and elsewhere, it's unclear how many students will return to school when classes resume, especially since many do not have homes to return to.

One of the biggest challenges school districts face after a strong hurricane is financing ongoing repair costs, which frequently exceed a school’s insurance claims and savings.

Terrebonne Parish has about $10 million in insurance and $200 million in damage, and Lafourche has $20 million in insurance and $100 million in damage. St. Charles Parish is in a better position with more than $50 million in insurance and an estimated $40 to $50 million in damages.

“It does not seem possible to work our way out of this alone,” Martin said.

Districts typically rely on the federal emergency management agency to fill the gap between damage expenses and insurance, but the process can be notoriously slow.

In Calcasieu Parish, the public school system recently halted all repair projects addressing damage caused by Hurricane Laura more than a year ago because it no longer had enough cash on hand.

"We're happy that we bought all the 55-gallon trash cans in Sam's Club because we have them all over our school district where our temporary roofs continue to leak every time it rains," Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus said at Tuesday’s committee meeting where he was invited to speak.

Bruchhaus said the district has already borrowed tens of millions of dollars from the state bond commission, but can’t move forward without more financial support from FEMA. The district has requested nearly $300 million over the last eight months, but has only received $116,000 in reimbursement, he said.

He said some of that money has been granted by FEMA, but is tied up at the state level. This detail resulted in significant discussion and ended when incensed legislators, including Senate Education Committee Chair Cleo Fields, demanded that the state release the funding immediately.

“The state needs to do a better job at releasing the money,” Fields said. “I just can’t imagine how the state can hold money for eight months.”

Casey Tingle, deputy director and chief of staff at the Governor Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the reimbursement requests for Calcasieu Parish were submitted to his office two months ago and that the review process typically takes 60 days. Fields and other legislators said they were not satisfied with his explanation and pushed back.

Eventually Tingle’s superior, James Waskom, director of the governor’s emergency preparedness office told the committee he would cut Bruchhaus a check for damaged roofs and school buses no later than tomorrow.

Parishes impacted by Ida also said they’re concerned about cash flow, especially since in some cases, they’re still waiting for reimbursements from Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall 16 years ago.

St. Charles Parish has a “healthy” fund balance of $38 million, but it is still concerned it won’t have enough cash, Oertling said, since FEMA typically reimburses districts rather than fronting them the cash.

Martin has the same concern. His district is in even worse financial shape with only $20 million in savings.

“You’ve got to spend the money to get reimbursed,” Martin said. “I don’t know how you spend money you don’t have.”

Martin asked officials to do everything in their power to expedite FEMA reimbursement and provide schools with more immediate funding. He also made two other requests.

The first: waive seat time requirements; and the second: freeze pre-storm funding levels for districts impacted by hurricanes.

Louisiana's funding formula, known as the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP, is tied to property taxes and student enrollment, both of which tend to drop after a hurricane. Calcasieu Parish lost about $15 million in state funding last school year after enrollment declined by 4,300 students. Enrollment counts are taken on Oct. 1 and Feb. 1, and school funding is adjusted accordingly.

The timing is especially problematic when a district gets hit by a strong storm in late August because teachers have already been hired, making it too late to cut costs by reducing staff, Martin said.

Some states have created stopgap measures to prevent schools from losing funding following a disaster. California allocates money to backfill property tax losses in communities affected by wildfires. Other states, like Iowa and Texas, have frozen school funding for a year following a natural disaster, and more recently, due to the pandemic.

Brumley said he has already requested some policy waivers from the state’s top school board, including relaxing some purchase requirements and lifting some caps on enrollment, class size and student-to-teacher ratios, in order to make aspects of the recovery process easier.

While Brumley did not mention the more substantial waiver requests raised by Martin and Oertling, he did acknowledge the state and public school’s shortcomings and said he plans to work on policy changes that would allow schools to be better prepared when another powerful storm hits.

“We need to have a better playbook in terms of when events like this happen,” he said.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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