School Choice & Charters

Private Schools Feel Slighted by Disaster-Relief Rules

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 18, 2005 5 min read
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Private school administrators are trying to get on an equal footing with public schools when it comes to qualifying for money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to replace buildings and school materials damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Public schools and universities can apply directly to FEMA for grants to rebuild their facilities and replace damaged furniture, equipment, and textbooks. By contrast, private nonprofit K-12 schools and universities must take the extra step of first applying to the U.S. Small Business Administration for a disaster loan before they can ask FEMA for a grant.

Staff members at Metairie Park Country Day clean school library books damaged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. All but about 200 of its 31,000 books were saved.

Private schools can get loans of up to $1.5 million, at an interest rate of 4 percent, from the SBA if they are deemed capable of repaying them. If a private school is denied a loan or the loan doesn’t cover the cost of eligible expenses for repairs after insurance, then the school is eligible for a grant from FEMA to pay for the same kinds of expenses that the agency covers for public schools.

“I think [private schools] ought to be given better consideration than we’ve been given,” said Mike Ladner, the superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, Miss., which had five schools destroyed and six others damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The school system enrolled 4,500 students in 18 schools before the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast in late August.

It doesn’t seem right, said Mr. Ladner, that some private nonprofit organizations, such as hospitals or those providing water or sewage services, have the same standing as their public counterparts in applying for repair grants from FEMA because they’re classified by law as providing “critical services.”

The law says private schools offer “noncritical services.” Mr. Ladner believes private schools should be on the “critical” list.

Public education officials, meanwhile, have expressed frustration with aspects of FEMA’s response to their own schools’ posthurricane needs.(“Schools Welcome FEMA Aid, But Not Without Frustration,” Oct. 12, 2005.)

Stafford Amendment

Just five years ago, the process of applying for federal disaster funds was the same for private and public schools. But that process was changed to the current one through an amendment in 2000 to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988, which governs FEMA.

There was a rationale for the change, said Steve Hansen, the spokesman for Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is responsible for proposing modifications to that part of the law. It went like this: Private schools have financial resources that public schools don’t, and the federal government should examine what those resources are before giving the schools grants.

“Though private schools are important to the community in which they are, they do have private resources,” Mr. Hansen said. “FEMA is a source of assistance of last resort. Even an individual who has damage to his or her home is given a small amount of immediate assistance for home repairs.”

The Rev. William Maestri, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, disputes that reasoning. “This idea that private schools have access to unlimited funds is sheer nonsense,” he said.

Father Maestri said that public schools spend 2½ to three times the amount of money per pupil that Catholic schools do. “If you want to get the bang for your buck, it would certainly be in the private sector,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you foster that, rather than try to find obstacles to keep the private schools from participating in the recovery?”

The New Orleans Archdiocese enrolled nearly 50,000 students before Hurricane Katrina. It now has more than 35,000 students in its reopened schools.(“Catholic Schools Reopening After Katrina,” Oct. 12, 2005.)

Mr. Hansen said committee members are aware of how private schools damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita are affected by the change in the law and are discussing the issue.

But private school advocates maintained last week that members of Congress haven’t shown any interest in changing the law back to the way it was.

Moisture-control specialists don protective gear before entering the hurricane-damaged Metairie Park Country Day School in Louisiana to move boxes to higher ground. Private school officials object to hurdles they face in getting emergency federal aid.

“They’re mainly focused on helping the displaced students and families right now, so this is just an afterthought,” said Amy B. Sechler, the director of legislative affairs for the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools.(“Cuts Weighed to Pay for Hurricane Relief,” this issue.)

The Stafford law permits private schools to apply directly to FEMA for reimbursements for two relief categories: “debris removal” and “emergency protective measures,” such as moving computers in anticipation of a hurricane.

‘Information Void’

Administrators at some independent or Catholic schools in the New Orleans area said last week that they were not yet well informed about the kind of help they could get from FEMA for hurricane-related damage.

Only one of the four administrators interviewed, Brendan Minihan, the business officer for the Metairie Park Country Day School in Metairie, La., knew that private schools need to apply first to the Small Business Administration for loans for building repairs before applying to FEMA. He received that news in a packet from FEMA after filing a claim online with the agency.

Mr. Minihan’s school stands out among the private schools contacted because it received hands-on assistance from FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. At the request of the school, FEMA provided large disposal bins, which school workers filled with debris from downed trees. The agency also hauled them away.

Still, said Mr. Minihan, “it’s been difficult getting information you can act on.”

“I’m talking about something simple,” he said, “like getting a required form to order trailers. … I’ve been trying to get two forms from them for the past week.”

David Fukutomi, the infrastructure coordinator for FEMA in Louisiana, said that because of the size of the Katrina disaster, FEMA hasn’t been able to brief some possible applicants for FEMA funds in the same way that the agency has in other disasters.

“Given the magnitude of the disaster, there are some things that haven’t happened,” he said. “There’s an information void that we’re trying to fill.”

At the same time, the extent to which schools across the nation are receiving an influx of students displaced by such a disaster is new for FEMA, Mr. Fukutomi said. “We’re treading on new ground here,” he said. “Not all the rules have been written yet.”

The government has some limitations on the kind of help it can provide to private schools, Mr. Fukutomi added. For example, FEMA won’t provide trailers for temporary faculty housing or classrooms to private schools, though it is doing so for public schools. That’s true for schools that receive an influx of displaced students and schools that were directly damaged by a hurricane, he said.

“What we’re doing,” he said, “is looking at how much flexibility we have to provide some relief.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Private Schools Feel Slighted by Disaster-Relief Rules

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