Schools Get Katrina Aid, Uncertainty
$645 million may not cover costs of displaced students.
As federal aid for students uprooted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita begins making its way to cash-strapped school districts, many educators are worried that the money Congress allocated will fall well short of their costs.
Since the hurricanes damaged hundreds of schools in the Gulf Coast region and initially dispersed nearly 375,000 students, districts around the country have tapped their own coffers to pay for extra teachers, textbooks, school supplies, tutors, and other resources for evacuees.
Many districts had expected to receive $6,000 this year for each general education student and $7,500 for each student in special education, the maximum allowed in the federal law that established what is called the “impact aid” reimbursement program.
But now, some district leaders fear that the actual amount they receive under the $645 million program will be lower, possibly two-thirds of what they had anticipated per student.
The financial concerns are compounded by the challenges many displaced students present. Many are emotionally fragile and are struggling to keep pace with their new classmates in schoolwork and on state tests, officials say.
“These kids are not only behind academically, they’ve got such emotional needs. They need all these interventions. They’re a very costly child to educate,” Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said in a recent interview. “It’s not fair that it’s going to blow huge holes in [local districts’] budgets and the state budget.”
Texas originally took in about 47,000 hurricane-displaced students and still has around 37,000, more than any state besides Louisiana, where districts not directly hit by Katrina last August have enrolled students from the ravaged area in and around New Orleans.
The Hurricane Education Recovery Act, signed by President Bush on Dec. 30, provides $1.4 billion in hurricane-related aid to K-12 schools, including the $645 million to states to cover the cost of educating students displaced by the hurricanes.
Those dollars, which are supposed to be a one-time boost in federal aid for this school year only, are being allocated in four payments, based on the number of displaced students in each state. States must submit four headcounts to the U.S. Department of Education showing the number of such students enrolled in academic quarters ending around the first of October and December of 2005, and February and April of this year.
According to the first quarterly headcount, about 158,000 students nationwide were eligible for the assistance.
State officials say they became concerned when they were told by Education Department officials during a conference call March 2, the day the first funds were released, that the final per-pupil impact-aid amount would likely be closer to $4,000 to $5,000 for the entire year, or nearly one-fifth to one-third less than they had expected.
Education finance officials in at least three states—Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—reported being on that call, but Chad Colby, an Education Department spokesman, could not confirm the information. He said the final per-pupil reimbursement for each state would not be available until the states submitted their fourth headcounts of hurricane-displaced students, due next month.
Mr. Colby also pointed to language in the hurricane-recovery law stating that schools would receive “up to $6,000” for general education students. He noted that the amount appropriated by Congress for education-related hurricane relief, $1.6 billion when higher education aid is included, fell $1 billion short of what President Bush originally requested.
Rethinking in Texas
Although the states are responsible for processing the hurricane-impact aid, school districts are most keenly feeling the fiscal squeeze of serving many unexpected students.
The Lafayette Parish, La., school district usually enrolls about 30,000 students and took in about 2,800 hurricane evacuees, 1,165 of whom remain. District officials said they had expected to receive the full $6,000 in per-pupil aid to help defray the cost of hiring more than 35 new teachers and buying computers, buses, and textbooks. The district estimates it will spend about $4 million on the hurricane evacuees this year.
“We had to set up regular classrooms whether we knew we were being reimbursed or not,” said Jules A. Gaudin, a deputy superintendent. If the district does not get sufficient aid, officials might “have to start making cutbacks,” said Mr. Gaudin, whose district’s annual budget is $180 million.
As of the Feb. 2 deadline to join the impact-aid program, 49 states and the District of Columbia had applied.
The first federal disbursement of $120 million nationwide was calculated at $750 per pupil for general education students and $937.50 for students in special education. The remainder of the money will be distributed to the states by July 31.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a statement released on March 2 that the initial payment was based on a “conservative starting point,” and that the department could boost the per-pupil funding if more money became available or more students returned to their home schools.
The aid can be used to pay school personnel and cover the costs of such things as transportation, classroom supplies, tutoring, and counseling.
In some cases, the money has yet to reach districts serving a large number of displaced students. But that is because some states are still working to administer the assistance.
The Texas Education Agency originally planned to hold back a portion of its federal allocation of impact aid to replenish state coffers. But it reconsidered when state officials realized how much districts were spending on the students. The TEA decided March 23 to remit all of the state’s impact-aid funds to districts.
Ms. Ratcliffe cited the displaced students’ low scores on recent state tests as one thing the state considered when deciding whether to give districts access to all of the federal funds. She said 80 percent of the 5th graders statewide who took the English test of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills passed, while only 47 percent of Katrina evacuees did. Fifth graders must pass the test before they can be promoted to 6th grade.
Higher Utility Bills
The Houston school district has more than 5,500 hurricane-displaced students on top of its normal enrollment of about 208,000 students. That has cost the district about $180,000 a day, or a projected total of $20 million for this school year, estimated Terry R. Abbott, the district’s spokesman. As of last week, Houston had not received any federal aid to help it recoup those costs.
The district has added extra bus routes and hired some 200 new employees. Even so, 500 of its classrooms exceed state enrollment limits, although in some cases by only one or two students per classroom, Mr. Abbott said.
Houston also had to pay for counseling students when they first arrived and for administering diagnostic tests, since evacuees in many cases did not come with school records, such as individualized education programs for students in special education. Discipline problems have also cropped up, including fights between local and Louisiana students.
In Louisiana, the 45,000-student East Baton Rouge Parish school district, which is serving about 4,000 additional students, took out a $5 million loan last fall to keep its cash flowing, said Catherine A. Fletcher, the district’s chief business officer. The district has hired 150 new teachers and spent $200,000 on extra textbooks. It also must pay higher utility bills for 78 temporary classrooms provided by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Ms. Fletcher said the district has had to reroute its buses and asked some drivers to handle three routes a day instead of two. She said the buses are packed as tight as possible—conditions that have led to fights among students and made it hard to find drivers.
“No one wants to drive these buses,” Ms. Fletcher said.
Meanwhile, states and districts that took in relatively small numbers of evacuees say educating hurricane evacuees has not placed an overwhelming strain on their budgets.
The Denver district, which has about 72,000 students and took in about 100 evacuees, integrated the students into schools around the city, placing no more than five in any single school, said Elizabeth A. Murphy, the district’s liaison for homeless students.
Schools have simply absorbed the extra costs, she said. But when the first impact aid arrives, expected to be about $61,000, the district will be able to provide more services, such as sending mental-health professionals to schools to treat evacuees one-on-one for post-traumatic-stress disorder, Ms. Murphy said.
The Fulton County, Ga., school district, which has about 80,000 students, has “managed [the influx] pretty well,” said Susan L. Hale, the district’s spokeswoman. The Atlanta-area district took in about 1,100 evacuees and still has about 800.
Ms. Hale said the federal reimbursement, which the district had not yet received as of last week, would help, but “it may not really come close to touching what we’ve really spent.”
More Federal Funding?
Texas and other states have begun seeking more federal aid. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a Republican, asked the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee at a March 7 hearing for $2 billion in further hurricane relief, including $338 million for impact aid, for his state.
Another Republican, Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, also expressed his concerns about the level of federal funding to members of his congressional delegation, said Heather L. Hedrick, the governor’s spokeswoman.
The $1.4 billion hurricane-relief package for K-12 schools approved by Congress in December includes $750 million for so-called “restart aid” for schools in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita.
Money may be used for:
• Replacement of school district information systems
• Recovery of student and personnel data
• Some transportation costs
• Rental of trailers for educational uses or rental
of other educational space
• Replacement of textbooks
• Redevelopment of curriculum
Money may not be used for:
• Replacement of lost local tax revenue
• Payment of salaries for personnel during periods in which they didn’t work
• Major renovations
• Purchasing land
• Replacing losses of trees or shrubs
• Housing costs for students and their families
But other states are taking a wait-and-see approach. Louisiana said it was always aware the federal government might not provide $6,000 per student in impact aid. So far, Louisiana has received $35.6 million in impact aid and $446 million in restart aid.
Four states are receiving both federal restart funds—money for schools in the Gulf Coast region as they get up and running again—and "impact aid"; money for schools in any state that is serving displaced students.
|Restart Aid||Impact Aid|
“They always cautioned us that there’s language in the law that if there’s not enough money available, we would get less,” said Elizabeth C. Scioneaux, the education finance director of the Louisiana Department of Education.
Margaret Wicker, a spokesman for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the senator would try to include more money for educating displaced students, rebuilding hard-hit districts, or both, in an emergency spending bill being considered in Congress.
Although it could be an uphill battle, some school officials are optimistic about the prospects for more aid. “When the secretary of education came to Houston, we were initially told we could receive reimbursement of up to 90 percent” of the costs incurred, said Mr. Abbott, the Houston district’s spokesman. “The good folks in Washington know our plight well.”
But others doubt they’ll see even $4,000 per student in impact aid.
“In my heart of hearts, I don’t think we’re going to get either the four or the six,” said Ms. Fletcher of the East Baton Rouge Parish district. “I have cash obligations like payroll, health benefits. … This place does not run itself. Our vendors like to get paid.
“It’s expensive educating students, it really is,” she said, “if you want to do it right.”
Vol. 25, Issue 29, Pages 1,28-29