Federal

Districts Fret Over July 31 Deadline for Spending U.S. Hurricane Aid

By Alyson Klein — April 25, 2006 4 min read
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Cash-strapped school districts in areas ravaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are worried they may have to return federal aid meant to cover the cost of educating displaced students because a federal deadline allows them scant time to determine how to use the money.

Districts must decide how they plan to spend that funding, called “impact aid,” by July 31, or give it back to the federal government, said Chad Colby, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

The Hurricane Education Recovery Act, enacted late last year, provided $645 million to districts across the country that took in students displaced by the hurricanes. Gulf Coast districts that were themselves hit by the storms qualify for the aid if they serve students meeting the federal definition of “displaced,” which is any student enrolled in a school other than the one he or she attended before the hurricanes hit.

Congress included a provision in the law requiring that unobligated funds be returned by the end of the school year, partly to ensure that the hurricane reimbursement money would be only a one-time federal expense and not a renewable program.

But districts in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi say they are having a hard time coping with the timeline, especially since they have not yet received all of their impact aid.

“They need the money, they want the money, they’re going to spend the funds—it’s just going to be difficult,” said Susan Rucker, the Mississippi state superintendent’s executive for instructional programs.

The districts have communicated their concerns to Hank Bounds, the Mississippi state chief, who is looking into possible ways to address the issue, Ms. Rucker said.

School officials are still uncertain what their final aid amounts will be, although the Education Department is projecting about $4,000 to $5,000 per student for the year, according to education officials in several states.

The impact aid was intended to reimburse districts for the unexpected costs of accommodating students displaced by the hurricanes, which struck in August and September. For districts outside the Gulf Coast region that accepted displaced students, the costs were typically covered by money at hand, and the districts are simply waiting to be reimbursed by the federal government.

Purchases Take Time

But Louisiana and Mississippi districts hit hard by the hurricanes often did not have enough revenue to tap into to resume operations, since many businesses and other sources of local taxes were also devastated.

Many districts had been counting on federal aid to help defray the cost of replacing textbooks and other supplies. It will be difficult to use the federal impact aid for those expenses if the deadline for obligating the money remains in place, state officials say.

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“It takes a while to get a purchase order, get price quotes,” said Beth Sewell, the Mississippi education department’s associate superintendent for planning. Although money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance payments can be used for certain expenses, many school officials have not yet received money from those sources.

Despite overwhelming needs, some districts are worried they may have to return some of their federal impact aid. Districts are still uncertain as to how much money they would have to return since they have not gotten their final totals yet.

Jeff R. Nowakowski, a spokes-man for the 43,000-student Jefferson Parish, La., school district, said his district is now serving about 7,000 students considered displaced. The district has not been able to purchase some supplies because sales-tax revenue did not start flowing again until around January, he said.

Mr. Nowakowski said the problem is compounded by the district’s uncertainty over how the federal impact aid may be spent. The federal Education Department released some general guidelines, explaining that the money can be used for salaries, textbooks, counseling services, and curriculum materials, among other costs. (“Schools Get Katrina Aid, Uncertainty,” March 29, 2006)

Personnel Costs

Mississippi districts also say more federal or state direction would be helpful. To avoid having to return any aid, some administrators there are considering spending the money just on teacher salaries. That expense, unlike funding for certain school supplies, has been allocated.

But the districts are not sure if that is allowable. They also say more flexibility would help them take care of other pressing needs.

“I could spend all of the ‘displaced’ money on personnel; there’s no question in my mind. I just don’t think that was the intent of the law,” said Henry Arledge, the superintendent of the 12,000-student Harrison County, Miss., district. “I think the intent was to spread it out.”

“I want to make sure that we have the curriculum materials we need in every classroom,” he added. “Getting a little extra time will help us make sure the money is spent well.”

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