District Faces Host of Logistical Woes

October 18, 2005 2 min read

Jefferson Parish school officials had lots to worry about in getting campuses ready to reopen Oct. 3, five weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit. Many of the worries remain.

Mold grows beneath the whiteboard in a portable classroom at Paul J. Solis Elementary School in Gretna, La. Its message was written just before Hurricane Katrina.

The first challenge was communication. “We left that Friday [before the hurricane] thinking this storm was headed to Florida,” says Superintendent Diane Roussel. “It took a good three to four days … just to find key personnel.”

“It was like 1975,” says Jeff Nowakowski, the district’s spokesman, “with no Internet and no cellphones.”

Perhaps the single biggest worry now is money.

“Right now, I sit with no federal funding for this, no state funding for this, no insurance money for this, and no [Federal Emergency Management Agency] money,” Ms. Roussel says during an Oct. 4 interview. “We were a very solid financial school system, who has used its liquid [assets] to do what the public wanted us to do, which is open schools quickly.”

The district is working to secure a $50 million line of credit while rapidly plowing through $23 million in reserves. Its income has taken a beating. The district estimated, for instance, that some $12 million per month in local sales-tax revenue that goes to the schools has dropped sharply. The district’s 2004-05 budget before Katrina was about $322 million.

As officials worked to get the system back on track, other top issues have included registering students, replacing books, fixing facilities, resuming bus routes, and assessing staffing needs.

Registration: The district set up nine registration sites to sign up new students. Those facilities closed Oct. 1, but families can still register at public schools. As of last week, the district had registered more than 2,600 students who had not attended Jefferson Parish schools before the storm. When schools reopened Oct. 3, the student population was 28,749. One week later, the figure was 33,330. Before the storm, enrollment was about 49,000.

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Winds of Change

Textbooks: Many textbooks were lost, damaged, or destroyed. When schools reopened, teachers asked students to return all schoolbooks so the district could assess its losses. There was still no word last week on the final cost.

Facilities: The most expensive damage was to buildings. Five of the district’s 84 schools were so hard hit that they still haven’t reopened, and may never do so. The district is still awaiting a formal estimate from insurers, and is working on its own assessment. A rough estimate for the damage is $60 million to $70 million.

Transportation: Before the storm, the district had about 300 bus drivers, all of whom owned and operated their buses independently. About 70 percent returned for the first week back. Four vehicles were stolen after the storm.

Employment:The district placed ads in newspapers to reach employees after the storm. The uncertain fiscal and enrollment picture leaves the long-term employment status of teachers and other staff members unclear. Before the hurricane, which struck on Aug. 29, the district employed some 3,800 professional staff members, such as teachers, librarians, and social workers. Most of them have returned. The district is to pay full salaries and benefits through the end of October. After that, it may need to lay off employees.

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as District Faces Host of Logistical Woes