Published Online: May 14, 1997

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Floods Leave Schools Awash in Challenges

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Last month, Sharon Knowlton was enjoying her first year as a principal at River Heights Elementary School in East Grand Forks, Minn. That ended April 19, when the Red River, swollen from a winter of severe blizzards, overran its banks and forced the evacuation of 70,000 area residents.

For 12,000 students on the North Dakota and Minnesota sides of the river, the devastation ended the school year officially on April 18--six weeks shy of a normal year.

Now, school officials in areas hardest hit by the floods are awash with questions about salaries, grades, and graduations. This is also when educators normally devise budgets and order supplies for the next school year.

"All I can say is that there will be school next fall," John Roche, the superintendent of the 2,200-student East Grand Forks district, said last week. "We'll get it done somehow."

In the meantime, an estimated 3,500 students and scores of educators from East Grand Forks and the neighboring Grand Forks, N.D., public schools have sought to restore some normalcy to their lives by scattering to other schools, and accommodations, across the region.

Today, when Ms. Knowlton isn't working on her water-logged home, she teaches English at Fisher Secondary School 30 miles away, where she and her husband found an apartment.

"The school is a nice distraction," she said. "You really can't spend more than four hours in these houses because the smell is so bad."

Quick Relief

Fortunately for educators, state officials addressed many of the most pressing concerns quickly and generously.

Mark Sanford, the superintendent of North Dakota's Grand Forks schools, soon realized there was little hope of getting his 9,900 students all back to school this year.

Of the district's 20 buildings, only five are currently usable. Six libraries and 100,000 books and other publications were destroyed. Computers stood under water at most sites. At one school, water reached 18 feet.

But Mr. Sanford soon got Gov. Edward T. Schafer of North Dakota to agree, in person, to a relief plan that would cancel the school year while paying the district and its teachers a full year's funding. Teachers will be expected to make up at least some of the time later.

"As teachers deal with their personal losses, we will ask them to come back and work for two weeks to clean up, help take inventories, and do other work," Mr. Sanford said.

Minnesota extended the same policy to the neighboring East Grand Forks system.

School officials in both systems will give students the grades they had earned as of April 18. Teachers will have the flexibility, however, to consider students' attendance and performance in the schools to which they've relocated.

Neither system had final damage estimates last week; federal emergency crews were still assessing sites. In some cases, school administrators have not been able to enter heavily damaged and unsafe buildings. Losses are expected to reach into the tens of millions of dollars.

"My guess is that at least one building will not be open next fall," Mr. Sanford said. "Four of our buildings are within a half mile of the river."

In East Grand Forks, three of the school system's five high schools are badly damaged. Superintendent Roche worked out of a Comfort Inn motel for two days before returning to his office last week.

Despite the widespread damage, neither district reported losing major computer files. The main computer at Grand Forks was safely located in a second-story room. The fates of attendance and grade books kept by teachers are less certain.

Officials in both school systems said counselors and teachers are working with high school seniors who are preparing for college.

And one East Grand Forks teacher applauded school officials there for getting the first post-flood payroll out by April 30, just two days late.

Back in School

Many students from the flooded areas are not waiting until next fall to hit the books.

An estimated 3,500 students enrolled in schools throughout the region, after both states urged schools in other districts to take in the displaced young people.

"Our view was that the important thing was for students to get into regular, structured environments," said Tom Decker, the director of school district finance for the North Dakota Department of Education.

Many students simply started attending classes in the schools to which they and their families had been evacuated, despite an absence of student records.

Eighty miles east of Grand Forks, the 5,300-student Bemidji, Minn., district greeted 80 new students, mostly from North Dakota, with welcoming posters, new textbooks, and even clothing.

"Many came with the shirts on their backs, and that was it," said Principal Everett Arnold of Bemidji High School.

No Way To Serve All

One of the areas most inundated with flood victims is the Thompson public schools, 10 miles south of Grand Forks. The enrollment there has ballooned from 565 students to about 770.

"By Tuesday the 22nd, I had 200 requests to start [school]. I had to say, 'Not today'," said Al Peterson, the superintendent. "How could you feed 200 new students and find new desks for them?"

By the next day, however, he had enrolled 204 students and put 60 more on a waiting list. He found space in the catechism rooms of a local Catholic church and in an American Legion hall.

Sandy Hoffman, a career-resource educator for the Grand Forks district, now volunteers as a teacher in Thompson. She lost her house and is now teaching in a priest's apartment next door to a church. Her 30 students are seated in two small, adjoining rooms, while she stands in the doorway between them. "Somehow, when you have 30 students in front of you," she said, "your needs don't seem as great."

Even so, the Thompson system had to turn away some 200 students. "There was no way we could serve everybody," Mr. Peterson said.

Pay At Issue

There also remains some confusion about whether Mr. Peterson should pay for the 16 new teachers he has hired.

State officials told him that teachers from Grand Forks should not be paid since their salary for the year already was guaranteed.

But it's unclear whether the time that Grand Forks teachers spend in Thompson or other districts will be credited against the requirement that they help out later in their home schools. Since the teachers who are working in school systems like Thompson are expected to exceed those requirements, Mr. Peterson would like to pay them at least at the substitute rate for any excess time.

East Grand Forks teachers have been asked to teach in the schools where the district's students have relocated. Several are helping as substitute teachers and tutors in the 2,000-student Crookston, Minn., system, which added 200 students to its roster. Even coaches are chipping in.

Katherine Johnson, 15, said that a few times each week her track coach gives her and two other East Grand Forks students a hand at Crookston Senior High, where they now attend and train. The new school is 30 miles from their old homes.

Although she described her new classmates as "nice, friendly, and easy to get along with," the sense of loss lingers.

Her younger sister is staying with a cousin and attending elementary school three hours away in Duluth. Her twin brother is working on flood repairs in town. She doesn't know where most of her friends are living.

"I miss my school," the sophomore said. "I miss the students and the teachers."

Web Only

Related Stories
Web Resources
  • See images from the 1997 "Fargo Flood" Web page.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Web site includes about a dozen maps that show the extent of flooding throughout North Dakota and Minnesota.
  • Visit the North Dakota list of flood-related links, which include information about contributing to the flood-relief fund.

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