When a hurricane hits, Louisiana schools lose buildings, students. Then they lose funding.
When it rains in southwest Louisiana, the sound of water hitting plastic can be heard coming from inside Calcasieu Parish’s public schools, as droplets seep through the buildings’ roofs and fall into 55-gallon garbage cans positioned beneath.
The district’s 60 school buildings have needed new roofs since Hurricane Laura tore through in the summer of 2020. The temporary roofs, installed immediately after the storm, were supposed to be just that: temporary.
But 13 months later, the district, which suffered $400 million in storm damage, still doesn’t have the money needed to make permanent repairs. Damage caused by Category 4 storms like Laura typically exceeds a district’s insurance policy, leaving them with a big gap.
“Our teachers and our students have kind of accepted the fact that they're going to school with concrete and no tile on the floor,” Karl Bruchhaus, the district's superintendent, said.
School districts in southeast Louisiana hit hard by Hurricane Ida now find themselves in the same situation and local superintendents said they’re scared.
Louisiana, despite being well accustomed to hurricanes, has no policies in place to help public schools recover from a disaster financially. Meanwhile, the state’s funding formula, which is based on property tax dollars and student enrollment, tends to penalize them instead.
Educators, disaster recovery experts and elected officials agree the bigger recovery issue lies with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is supposed to help schools bridge the gap between insurance payouts and hurricane damage. But FEMA largely relies on a process that requires districts to front the cost of repairs and then wait months, sometimes years, for reimbursement.
“That's a challenge in a lot of disaster-hit locations — they don't have the cash to pay upfront and then wait for reimbursement,” said Shelly Culbertson, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.
Because schools are typically cash strapped and FEMA releases money only once a project is completed, funding can come in unpredictable dribs and drabs. “You get this rolling process, which just doesn't work,” Culbertson said.
Bruchhaus said that’s what public schools in Calcasieu have experienced over the last year. The school system is still waiting for hundreds of millions of dollars from FEMA, he said, and now they’re far from the only district in limbo.
Why schools lose state funding after a hurricane
Calcasieu Parish used to have one of the largest and fastest-growing public school districts in the state. Since Laura, it’s been shrinking.
Enrollment dropped by about 14%, or 4,200 students, Bruchhaus said, and he’s worried it will continue to decrease. The district’s current enrollment is just shy of 27,000 students.
“We were hoping we’d get some [students] back over the summer, but that didn’t happen,” he said.
Experts said those missing students are part of the reason why public school districts struggle to recover after a disaster because when they lose students, they also lose funding.
“It is a serious problem when you lose students and you lose the funding at a time when you need the funding the most to get back on your feet,” Bruchhaus said, adding that the annual funding his district receives from the state has dropped by about $14 million.
Culbertson said this principle is well established in states where school districts aren’t given a grace period to scale down operations or re-enroll students.
“You get a race to the bottom where they don't have money to improve, so more students leave, and then they get less money and then even more students leave,” she said.
In the past, Louisiana’s legislature has approved changes to its school funding formula, known as the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), following a disaster.
The MFP must be re-submitted each year by the state’s school board and re-approved by its legislature. When changes have been made to explicitly account for disasters, they’ve always been temporary.
The current formula doesn’t offer hurricane contingencies, and accommodations weren’t approved for Calcasieu Parish last year.
The last time the formula accounted for a disaster was in 2016 after extreme flooding impacted the East Baton Rouge area. Nearly 50 schools experienced significant water damage, some had to be completely rebuilt and recovery efforts are still ongoing. As a result, all three districts experienced steep enrollment drops, and in two of the three parishes, enrollment has continued to shrink since then.
It wasn’t until the spring that the state’s board and the legislature decided to grant a district some level of financial reprieve if it had lost at least 7% of its students. The legislature provided about $7 million in additional funding that year to the three qualifying systems in East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes.
After Laura’s landfall, there was talk that the board and legislature would do the same for Calcasieu. Beth Scioneaux, the state deputy superintendent of school system financial services, said in an email that formula revisions were adopted by the board last year but were rejected by the legislature.
Under the current formula, school funding is determined based on two student counts taken in October and February, and increases and decreases are calculated in March as part of the state’s mid-year adjustment process.
But the February count is another disaster-responsive reform, Scioneaux said, that went into effect after Hurricane Katrina because 100% of students were missing from some districts during the original October count. While schools hit by hurricanes may lose students as early as the October count, they won’t experience a reduction in funding until March.
By adding a second count, she said the state is now able to provide more accurate funding during the school year and better estimates for the coming academic year.
The formula has led some school system leaders, including Bruchhaus and superintendents impacted by Ida, to propose that the state hold districts harmless by blocking a reduction in MFP funding at least for the year when the storm hit.
How federal disaster policy slows recovery
Money from FEMA, while incredibly important to a school system's recovery, can prove difficult to access.
“It's a daily obsession for us because we just can't fix it,” Bruchhaus told New Orleans Public Radio in early September. At that point, the school district had initiated nearly $300 million in reimbursement requests and received less than $116,000.
For now, superintendents in Terrebonne, Lafourche and St. Charles parishes said they’re holding out hope that their experience will be different, that FEMA will move faster and be more responsive. They have no other choice.
State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said he knows firsthand how challenging the FEMA reimbursement process can be because he navigated it himself when he was superintendent of Jefferson Parish Public Schools.
“That process is not as expedient as people would like it to be,” Brumley said. “What we’re going to do is support school leaders and continue to advocate with our congressional delegation around trying to push FEMA to move as quickly as they possibly can.”
While many in Louisiana have lamented the lengthy FEMA process, the agency said it is simply doing its due diligence by imposing safeguards to avoid fraud. John Mills, a FEMA spokesperson, said if states aren’t happy with the timeline, they may want to consider other options.
“Communities may need to budget for hurricanes,” Mills said. “It's up to the local community to decide what it wants to do for its preparedness plan, but one thing is almost a guarantee: Louisiana will be hit by another hurricane.”
Rather than pass the buck, school leaders said FEMA needs to be more flexible with funding and streamline its processes. They argue there simply isn’t enough funding in the public school system for a district to cover its operational expenses and set aside more money for hurricanes.
School damage in Lafourche Parish from Hurricane Ida will likely exceed $100 million, said Lafourche Parish Public Schools Superintendent Jarod Martin, while damage in St. Charles Parish Public Schools is projected to be between $40 and $50 million, according to St. Charles Parish Public Schools Superintendent Ken Oertling. Terrebonne Parish schools calculated the most significant amount of damage — between $200 and $400 million, according to Philip Martin, the district’s superintendent.
The damage estimates in Terrebonne and Lafourche exceed their insurance policies by tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. St. Charles is a notable outlier with $75 million in insurance coverage.
“I feel pretty confident we’ll be able to recover,” Oertling said. “But of course, I haven’t gone through something of this magnitude.”
Philip Martin said a bigger insurance policy would be nice, but it’s unrealistic.
“You pay for the insurance you can afford and not what you'd like to have,” he said.
Potential solutions for the next disaster
New Orleans Public Radio spoke with nearly a dozen researchers, education leaders and elected officials and through those conversations, a few key themes emerged when it comes to disaster recovery and preparedness.
School system leaders have proposed two main solutions to address funding shortfalls following hurricanes.
- Hold hard-hit districts harmless temporarily by freezing their per-pupil funding at its pre-storm level.
- Have states front districts cash to carry them through FEMA’s reimbursement process.
Marguerite Roza, a professor at Georgetown University who studies school finance, said altering statewide funding formulas to hold districts harmless can have unintended and sometimes negative consequences.
“We call it phantom student funding,” Roza said. “We’re funding kids who don’t go there anymore at the expense of funding them where they do go.”
That’s part of why Calcasieu Parish Public Schools did not receive a waiver last year, according to Senator Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles. The rest of the state didn’t want to take a funding hit.
But what if money for disasters came from a different pot entirely? Roza said it could make sense for states with a high number of emergencies to set money aside, but that would require them to make a value judgment between spending money on students’ immediate needs and setting some aside for later.
“Districts might say, ‘Well, I think you should just put that money into the kids who are here right now,’ instead of setting it aside,” Roza said. “That’s a choice, and in a way, that’s what FEMA money is for, right?”
And even though the primary purpose of school funding in the American Rescue Plan is to assist states in “preventing, preparing for and responding to COVID-19,” a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson told New Orleans Public Radio the money could potentially be used for storm repairs as long as they fall within the legislation’s allowability considerations.
Experts said for now it makes sense to focus on solutions that will help districts better navigate pre-existing funding structures. For example, states could provide schools with priority access to bonds or other loans and offer them teams of consultants to apply for and track FEMA funding.
Shelly Culbertson, with the RAND Corporation, said it could make sense for a state like Louisiana to have a shared fleet of prefabricated buildings. She said it’s also important that rebuilds and repairs prioritize strengthening schools to better withstand major hurricanes like New Orleans did after Hurricane Katrina.
Brumley has acknowledged that the state and the department of education need to have a better “playbook” for hurricanes, but for now, school district leaders in southeast Louisiana have been left wondering what’s next.
While their October enrollment, which was recorded on the first of the month, is unlikely to show much of a decrease, Philip Martin, in Terrebonne, said he’s worried the district’s February count will be much lower.
“Parents are trying to get their feet under them right now, and many of them are living in their homes temporarily,” Martin said. “As soon as they have an option to get out, I think they're going to. I have no data to back that up, that's just my gut feeling.”
Meanwhile, Oertling, in St. Charles, is holding out hope that most of his students will come back. Out of 6,400 surveys completed in September, almost 90% said they planned to remain enrolled with the school district, even though 24% were currently living outside the parish.
School reopening since Hurricane Ida is still ongoing in the river and bayou parishes and districts that had not yet returned all students to the classroom said they plan to over the next two weeks.
For now, all eyes are on the public schools in Calcasieu, where construction has been paused indefinitely since early September due to insufficient funding.
Bruchhaus said if the district doesn’t receive more than $100 million in FEMA in the next few weeks, they’ll have no choice but to let their contractors walk away. If that happens, they’ll have to negotiate new contracts and the repair process will likely be further delayed.
“We don't want that to happen to us,” Philip Martin said. “I don't want to speculate why or what's the reason, but I know it's created enormous problems for our neighbors to the west."