Gulf Coast Districts Get Restart Aid, But Ask Whether It Will Be Enough
$750 million is targeted to help schools resume operating.
Gulf Coast school districts teetering on the brink of financial disaster after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck last year have high hopes for the pot of federal aid intended to help them recoup money they used to get up and running again. But many have yet to see the funds, and others say it won’t be enough.
The federal government has channeled $750 million of so-called restart aid to Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama—the states with schools that in some cases were flattened by the winds, rain, and flooding the two hurricanes unleashed. The restart aid is distinct from the $645 million in what is called impact aid for states where hurricane-displaced students are being educated this school year, which those four states qualify for as well. ("Schools Get Katrina Aid, Uncertainty," this issue.)
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|
The U.S. Department of Education has already funneled the restart money to the four states. Districts in Mississippi have received it, but some in Louisiana, Texas, and Alabama were still waiting late last week for the applications to be processed.
The application process, different in each state, is fraught with confusion over exactly how the districts should use the restart money in tandem with rebuilding money they have received or hope to get from insurance companies and from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which helps districts pay for rebuilding not covered by insurance.
School districts, many of which have not received any FEMA money so far, are anxious to get the federal restart funds
“I’ve heard some pretty desperate stories,” said Elizabeth C. Scioneaux, the director of the Louisiana Department of Education’s education finance division. “All the districts are being extra-resourceful with what they have right now, … but some are hanging on by a hair.”
A Critical Need
In December, Congress approved a $1.4 billion education relief package for K-12 schools damaged by Katrina and Rita, which swept through the Gulf Coast region on Aug. 29 and Sept. 24, respectively. ("Congress Passes Hurricane Aid for Schools," Jan. 4, 2006.)
The money can be used for such district needs as replacement of computer information systems; some transportation costs; rental of mobile classrooms or other instructional space; and replacement of textbooks.
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
The money can also be used for a district’s contribution toward employee salaries, and that seems to be the way most districts plan to use the bulk of their aid. The federal restart funds can go toward salary costs for some employees from the time of the hurricanes through the end of the 2006 calendar year for most districts.
In the Bay St. Louis-Waveland school district in southwest Mississippi, some of the $13 million it has received in restart money will pay for the salaries of school psychologists, behavior specialists, and social workers to counsel staff members and students, said Garland T. Cuevas, the district’s business administrator. The district, which had 2,380 students before Katrina and has 1,440 now, had requested $17 million in federal restart funds.
For three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Cuevas said, he worked out of his truck and used the sidewalk outside his ruined office building as his office. He described sitting on the sidewalk with tears running down his face as Black Hawk helicopters thwumped through the skies.
“Everything that was normal was gone, and we were in a foreign land,” he said.
“There’s still no normal life,” he added. “We think psychologists will try to help us get some sort of stability.” ("The ‘New Normal’," Feb. 15, 2006.)
Doris Voitier, the superintendent of Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish public schools, said she’ll use her $4.8 million from an initial round of restart funding—she expects to receive more later—to repay salaries for teachers and other school employees, whose pay was slashed after Hurricane Katrina. The district, which had 8,800 students prehurricane and now has 2,200, had 14 of its 15 schools destroyed.
“I’m hoping now I can restore those monies for the teachers,” Ms. Voitier said. “It’s going to be crucial to our operations.”
Ms. Voitier said the authorized uses of the aid remain hazy to her. For example, she’s unsure whether she can use the restart funds to provide back pay for the period when salaries were cut.
“Unless I can get assurances from the government that I’m allowed to backtrack, … I’m being cautious,” she said.
As of last week, Louisiana had 179 districts eligible for its $445.6 million in restart funds, and 122 of them had applied for the first round of awards.
In Mississippi, the state’s $222.5 million in federal restart money has been distributed to all 38 districts that applied.
Texas received $78.2 million; 28 districts, mostly damaged by Hurricane Rita, have applied for the money. In Alabama, the state’s share of $3.8 million in restart funds is being distributed mainly to two districts.
The four states, however, must also reserve a portion of their restart allocations for private schools affected by the hurricanes. The amount depends on the number of both private and public schools in the state.
Louisiana had to set aside 24.6 percent of its restart funds for private schools. In Mississippi, it was 21.1 percent; in Texas, it was 14 percent; and in Alabama, 24 percent of federal restart money was set aside for private schools. If those schools don’t use all the money within 120 days, the money will put back into the pot for use by public schools.
The states are distributing the money in different ways. For example, Louisiana is using a formula that rates districts based on how many days they were closed to recover from Hurricane Katrina and then factors in enrollment data from the previous school year to calculate a per-pupil aid amount, said Ms. Scioneaux. Mississippi’s complicated ranking system factors in lost tax revenue, unemployment data, and the number of students living in trailers and on cruise ships.
In most cases, districts requested much more federal money than the states had available to give. But many are just happy to be getting something.
“This money is going to help tremendously to get us back on our feet,” said Sue Matheson, the superintendent of the 1,450-student Pass Christian, Miss., school district, where most of the school buildings were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It has received $7 million in the first round of awards of restart funds, and school officials are expecting more. But the total will likely not come near the district’s request of $22 million.
The money can’t, however, be used simply as a replacement for local tax revenues that have disappeared. That’s a worry for many administrators, including Henry Arledge, the superintendent of Mississippi’s Harrison County district, in Gulfport, which had 13,280 students before Katrina and now has about 12,200.
Property values in Harrison County have plummeted, and the riverboat-casino industry, which contributed significantly to the local tax base, was dealt a staggering blow, Mr. Arledge said. “Our biggest problem,” he said, “is not knowing what the … tax-collection rate is going to be.”
Mr. Arledge said he plans to use the restart money for salaries, computer networks, and some instructional materials.
While the one-time federal restart funding is a boon, the fallout from the hurricane will last much longer than the money will, he said.
“I never dreamed I would work on Hurricane Katrina every day since the storm, practically all day long, every day,” he said.
In Texas, districts waiting for restart funds are mostly dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, said Philip M. Cochran, the senior director of the division of education services in the Texas Education Agency. Rita flattened trees in the timber-producing area of southeast Texas and wiped out schools in some districts.
Feeling Left Out
Twenty-eight districts have requested $230 million in restart money, Texas received far more than the $78.2 million, Mr. Cochran said. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas flew to Washington earlier this month to lobby federal lawmakers for more money for hurricane-affected schools. Schools in Louisiana are also clamoring for more federal money. Last week, some local education officials lobbied several members of Congress, who were in the state touring hurricane damage, including Rep. George Miller of California the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
“We understand the destruction in the New Orleans area, and we’re incredibly appreciative of every dime the state of Texas got,” Mr. Cochran said. “But I’ll just say that most of the districts and people in that [southeast Texas] area have reflected to us that they feel left out of everything, that nobody gives a crap.”
The one-campus Sabine Pass district, where Hurricane Rita made landfall, sustained damage to all three buildings on the main campus, said Superintendent Walter L. Fenn. After the hurricane, only eight houses in the town were habitable, and nearly all residents are living in trailers these days. Mr. Fenn’s trailer is set up in a parking lot outside the school’s shop building.
Sabine Pass, which had 285 students before the storm and now has 260, asked for $3.3 million in restart money. Mr. Fenn said the district is likely to get about $2.6 million in aid.
He said he’s grateful for the money, but has no idea how the district will make up the difference, especially with the prospect of a nose dive in property-tax collections.
“There’s going to be a huge amount the district will have to come up with,” he said. “We’ll just take it day by day.”
Vol. 25, Issue 29, Pages 28-29