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After 2 devastating storm seasons, new commission aims to protect Louisiana schools

DOUGLASS_FRONT.jpg
Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
An industrial-sized dehumidifier works to dry out the interior of Frederick A. Douglass High School, in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward on Sept. 9, 2021.

Louisiana has few policies in place to help schools prepare for or recover from hurricanes. Now, a new commission will bring together experts and educators to brainstorm solutions.

The commission, created by State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, is tasked with creating a hurricane “playbook” for schools, something Brumley says he was surprised to learn didn’t exist when he became superintendent in June 2020.

“I think this is an opportunity for us to solve for a challenge that should have been solved many years ago,” Brumley says.

In the last two years, Louisiana has been hit by six named storms which have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the state’s school system alone. A majority of students missed at least a week of school due to hurricane related closures and some missed more than a month.

Brumley said the value of the commission comes from its membership, which consists of school and district leaders who have been through multiple storms, including Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, as well as experts in emergency preparedness, engineering and construction management.

Members are scheduled to meet seven times between now and August and will meet for the first time Tuesday evening.

“What we're trying to do is take the individuals who have experience, capture their lessons and put together a resource so that leaders now and leaders tomorrow will have a playbook that can help them answer questions and be better prepared,” he said.

One of the commission’s members is Calcasieu Parish Public Schools Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus. Calcasieu schools suffered some of the greatest damage from Hurricane Laura in 2020 and has faced multiple hurdles to recovery since then.

Even if the commission fails to come up with solutions to the biggest challenges facing schools, Bruchhaus said simply writing down best practices for things like building restoration or how to reschedule state testing will benefit other districts.

“Something will come out of this,” he said. “Even if we can’t solve those very tough issues. I think just talking about them certainly is beneficial.”

Arguably the biggest problem the commission is facing has to do with district finances and how a lack of money prevents school recovery.

For example, the state’s funding formula is based on student enrollment. When a parish is hit hard by a hurricane, students tend to leave the district either temporarily or permanently, and as a result schools lose money.

This often leaves districts cash strapped at the exact moment they need capital to make school repairs.

District leaders said this arrangement is especially problematic because of FEMA’s reimbursement process, which forces schools to pay up front for repairs and get the money back from the agency once a project is completed.

Brumley, the state’s superintendent, said he’s well aware of these issues, having also navigated them himself when he was superintendent of Jefferson Parish Public Schools.

He expects the commission to suggest steps districts can take to help themselves, as well as local and state policy changes, some of which would likely require legislative approval.

“While I don't know what those are today, I am confident that many of those will be uncovered through the process that we're going to work our way through,” he said.

Meanwhile, district and school leaders actively recovering from Laura, Delta and Ida said they’ll be watching the commission carefully.

In Golden Meadow, Principal Hennessy Melancon’s school was rendered unusable by Ida, and enrollment dropped by 25%. His school, which serves about 340 students in grades 3-5, was able to move into another building, but the future is uncertain.

“Even if they decide to rebuild, it’s still going to be a two or three year process,” he said. “Just to fix the roofs could take a year because of material and labor [shortages].”

He said his biggest concern is the subsequent loss of funding his district could face.

In addition to solving the funding conundrum, Melancon said he hopes the commission will consider other issues like school performance and accountability. He thinks the state needs to offer teachers and students greater leeway following hurricanes, similar to what they did for schools after COVID-19.

Louisiana’s hurricane preparedness commission will meet for the first time Tuesday at 5 p.m. The meeting will be held over Zoom from 5 to 7 p.m. and is open to the public.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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