New York Schools, U.S. Officials At Odds Over 9/11 Aid

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New York City schools still recovering from the impact of Sept. 11 are sparring with the federal government over financial help education officials say they need to speed the healing.

The disagreements came to the forefront last week, when the two U.S. senators from New York introduced a bill that aims to make it clear that the Federal Emergency Management Agency can release $161 million to the schools. The disaster-relief agency said federal law prevents it from doing so.

Two of the state's U.S. representatives have already introduced the same bill in the House, and they were working last Thursday to add it to a spending measure that could go to a vote on the House floor this week.

"Let's cut out the excuses and do away with the bureaucratic puzzles, and get down to finding a solution to this obvious problem," Rep. John E. Sweeney, R-N.Y., said in a statement.

When terrorists leveled the twin towers of the World Trade Center, New York students lost instructional time after schools were closed and classes had to relocate to temporary quarters. The New York City board of education estimates students lost about 30 hours of classroom time and says it will cost the school system $100 million to make up those hours.

District leaders are also seeking reimbursement for mental-health counseling, losses in cafeteria sales, air-quality monitoring, and new supplies such as textbooks, among other purposes.

New York's schools have already received $4.2 million for grief and trauma counseling from the federal Department of Education and $1.3 million from FEMA to be used in tandem with the Education Department grant.

The city's schools have applied for about $20 million in other disaster funding, of which about $11.7 million has been approved, said John Czwartacki, a FEMA spokesman.

But school officials contend that they need more help to make sure that New York students don't lag when it comes to testing required by the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001. To prevent that, district officials would like either to add a week to the school year or hours to the school day.

"We're weighing our options," said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the city's board of education.

Statutory Limits

A recent study on mental health found that some New York City students were still having difficulties as a result of stress from the Sept. 11 attack. School leaders say they need more money for counseling to help the system's 1.1 million students deal with such problems. ("N.Y.C. Students Suffer Post- Sept. 11 Trauma, Study Finds," May 8, 2002.)

But FEMA has either turned down their requests for additional funds or discouraged them from making them, Mr. Ortiz said.

FEMA officials counter that there is a good reason for the agency's stance. Federal statutes prohibit the disaster-relief agency from paying for additional school instruction, Mr. Czwartacki said. Federal regulations say the Education Department must foot the bill for added instructional costs.

"By statute, that money would have to come from the Department of Education," Mr. Czwartacki said. "I'm not going to speak to the wisdom of that or why it was written that way. It's just a cold fact."

The Education Department has received no request from New York to pay for an additional week of school, spokeswoman Melinda Kitchell Malico said last week.

Some politicians have noted, however, that it's FEMA, not the Education Department, that has had money appropriated for helping the New York schools.

Mr. Czwartacki said he would welcome the change to the statute that would come if the bill introduced by the New York politicians passed. "What we can do for the schools is considerable, but not entirely complete," he said.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney

Members of New York's congressional delegation have been working furiously to help funnel recovery money to the schools. In addition to the bills introduced, Democratic Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney has approached the Department of Agriculture's food and nutrition service about reimbursing the schools for $3 million in lost lunch sales.

"FEMA's failure to address the needs of the school system and its students after 9/11 is totally wrong," Ms. Maloney said in a statement.

Susan Acker, a spokeswoman for the nutrition service, said last week that the agency was looking into the issue.

'Distressing' Situation

Rep. Maloney has also been among several New York officials firing off a flurry of letters to FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh and President Bush, looking for ways to cut through red tape and get money to schools. Ms. Maloney's chief of staff, Benjamin Chevat, called the situation "distressing."

If the attempt to give FEMA clear power to dispense the money to New York schools fails in the House, Mr. Chevat said, proponents will go forward with legislation like the stand-alone bill in the Senate.

"We're not trying to appropriate new money; we're saying the money has already been sent to FEMA," Mr. Chevat said.

Mr. Czwartacki of FEMA predicted that the situation would be worked out soon. "I don't have a doubt," he said.

Vol. 21, Issue 36, Pages 24, 26

Published in Print: May 15, 2002, as New York Schools, U.S. Officials At Odds Over 9/11 Aid
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