School districts press legislators for financial help as they recover from Ida and Laura

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BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — School districts in the bayou parishes are working to get students back in the classroom, but they need money from the state and FEMA to start rolling in. 

Superintendents in school districts in both southwest and southeast Louisiana shared with the Senate Education Committee how they’re recovering from their respective storms. A common story that came up was that they’re running out of finances for repairs.

State Superintendent Cade Brumley estimates there are still 70,000 children still out of school a month after Hurricane Ida, which is down from 300,000 immediately after the storm.

Many schools in the southeast parishes are still working out how much it will cost to repair all their damaged facilities — estimating it will be in the hundreds of millions.

Lafourche Parish is also trying to find a way to waive some of the required minutes for the hardest-hit areas. 

“If South Lafourche High School can’t open its doors until Oct. 20 and I begin telling families that you’re going to be in school until July to make up those instructional minutes after the year that they’ve had, I don’t think that’s going to be met well,” Martin said.

In St. Charles Parish, Superintendent Ken Oertling said Hurricane Ida is one of the worst tragedies to hit the area. The school district is dealing with a collapsed roof at one of their main high schools and an elementary school. There was also flooding in the western parts of the parish.

So far just for debris removal, the district has spent $4 million. Oertling anticipates the district will have spent all of its general funds on recovery efforts. They are spending $8-10 million on restoration and controlling the humidity in buildings to prevent mold. Long-term repairs are estimated at about $20 million. 

Oertling said even though students have tablets available to them, virtual learning is not an option for them. Many students are living in homes without electricity or access to the internet.

Southeast schools left the meeting nervous after hearing from Calcasieu Parish and how they still are hurting for federal aid a year after Hurricane Laura. While all their schools are open, any time it rains the roofs leak and it causes issues. Three weeks ago the district had to shut down all construction projects because they needed funding from the state to be handed over.

Legislators leaned into GOHSEP for taking months to allocate the FEMA-approved dollars to the parish for roof repairs and buses. Senator Cleo Fields called the delay reprehensible and Senator Bodi White agreed that the money needs to be signed over sooner so they do not lose their contractors for their projects.

“I need to have money in the bank… we’re basically out of cash,” said Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus.

The director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, who handles the federal money once it is given to the state, said they have to review the expenses before giving over the money to prevent overspending or FEMA scrutiny regarding where the money is supposed to be spent.

“When FEMA obligates that dollar, I’ll cut these gentlemen a check. But when I come back to you in Senate Finance and say I need all this money to pay FEMA back, I want you to be cognizant, that’s all I’m saying,” GOHSEP Director James Waskom said.

Waskom agreed to work with Calcasieu to get the funds to them as soon as possible.

Calcasieu has lost 4,200 students since Hurricane Laura and they are concerned that the longer it takes to help the community recover, those students may never return. This had led them to be short $13 million in Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funds.

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