Just one week after school started last year, doors were closed as historic flooding damaged campuses across Livingston Parish. But when schools opened once again, not all students came back. And as Wallis Watkins reports, that’s only added to the financial strain on the school system.
It’s summertime, and while the halls and classrooms of schools aren’t full of students, the sound of construction work fills the void. Brand new cabinets are going up at Freshwater Elementary in Denham Springs. Boxes of yet-to-be-laid floor tile line the freshly-painted hallway.
Principal Julie Dugas recalls having to tell Superintendent Rick Wentzel that the school was underwater.
“I told him ‘Freshwater’s going down.’ Bless his heart, you could tell he was being hit left and right with schools,” she says.
Fifteen schools in Livingston Parish were damaged in the August flood. Repairs could cost up to $120 million . The school system is working with FEMA, who has reimbursed $27 million so far. But in order to ensure that reimbursement, the school district has to work within FEMA’s rules and regulations, a process which just takes time.
“Whatever we do," says Wentzel, "we can’t really step out and do it until we’re sure FEMA will help cover the expenses. Because if they do not cover the expenses, we can’t do the work. We just don’t have the money.”
Money is expected to become even tighter for the school district this upcoming year. Enrollment dropped by about 600 students following the flood. As student enrollment falls, so does state funding. For Livingston Parish, that’s about a $3.5 million cut, which means the school system will have forty fewer teachers next year.
Typically, he says, “we’re gaining anywhere from ten to twenty spots a year. It’s all because of the flood.”
In a school year that became so defined by flood water, FEMA and costly reconstruction, Wentzel says the job of educating students hasn’t changed.
“It’s just a building. We’re about children. We’re about students. So regardless of where we are, we’re going to do what we’re supposed to do,” he explains.
Spring 2017 LEAP test scores were released this month and so far, the Department of Education says the flood doesn’t seem to have impacted results. They’ll present a final report to the state board next month.
Freshwater Elementary Principal Julie Dugas says for her school, the effect of the flood went beyond the classroom. She says the biggest thing that affected the students and parents at Freshwater Elementary was not being able to do the things they normally did.
"We let parents come and eat anytime they want with their kids. We couldn’t do that, because we had half of another school in the cafeteria. We couldn’t have all of our Christmas programs and parties and things like that, because our parking lot was filled with half of another school. So all the little things that we do that are community based - we were not able to do them.”
Doris Voitier understands how important that connection is between the schools and the community as they recover. She’s Superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish School System, a job she took on in 2004, just one year before Hurricane Katrina.
“That type of an event impacted not only the school system," she explains, "but the community and the family for quite a long period to come. So recovery isn’t just get me a building that I can put students in and a curriculum in place -- it was going to be how to nurture those kids."
She says the physical recovery takes years. But at the same time, communities must find a way to address the emotional scars left behind by a disaster like the August flood.
“While on the one hand you’re so focused on recovering physical structures and dealing with FEMA, dealing with the finances, making sure that you can get staff and buildings in place -- the piece that you don’t necessarily see, dealing with that social emotional piece, is just as necessary as this develops.”
At Freshwater Elementary, those floor tiles and cabinets will be ready for students when they return August 9th, just days before the one year anniversary of the flood.