Nearly five months after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast and destroyed or damaged hundreds of schools and colleges, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) official responsible for Mississippi and Louisiana relief efforts could not say how much damage schools and colleges sustained in those states, could not say how much money will go to education recovery in the affected areas, and declined to comment about ED’s master recovery plan.

ED has developed a web site. Chad Colby, a spokesman for ED’s press office, said that Hurricane Help for Schools, an ED-run hurricane relief web page, would serve as the foundation for the department’s master recovery plan.

That web site offers a forum for schools to post what they need and for organizations to post free materials they are willing to give, such as computers, textbooks, and chairs. It also gives users a handful of links and resources for information on hurricane assistance funds and other information to help children deal with traumatic events.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has designated certain ED officials as contact persons for local education authorities in the affected states. But, as of press time, it appeared Spellings had not assigned a single department official to oversee and coordinate ED’s entire hurricane relief operations.

Henry L. Johnson, assistant secretary of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, was assigned as the contact person for schools in Mississippi, and later Louisiana. In an interview with eSchool News, Johnson said he could talk in general terms about federal aid to hurricane-ravaged schools, but he refused to address questions about the extent of ED’s master recovery plan.

“We don’t know for sure how much money will ultimately go to each state, but Congress allocated $1.6 billion, and the expectation is that the money will go to those areas that need it,” Johnson said. He said the department could not yet estimate the total cost of all education-related hurricane recovery efforts.

Asst. ED Secretary Henry L. Johnson.

ED staff members are in daily contact with officials in the four states directly affected (Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama), Johnson said. Those staff members are collecting data and gathering damage estimates for public and private schools, but do not have any final figures yet, he said.

Staff members in his Office of Elementary and Secondary Education are in charge of administering the aid, according to Johnson: “It’s my understanding that all federal agencies are involved in this in some way, but I don’t know the particulars of those.”

Johnson is scheduled to speak today as part of a $249-per-connection virtual roundtable discussion sponsored by the Heller Reports, an education research and reporting firm owned by Quality Education Data. During the for-fee audio program, Johnson reportedly will further outline what the affected schools in the Gulf Coast need and will describe his own initial impressions of the devastation. Before coming to ED last summer, Johnson was Mississippi’s State Superintendent for Education.

“I’ve heard, very loudly and very clearly, the need for dollars and the need for flexibility,” Johnson said. He added that schools still need curriculum materials, computers, software, hardware, textbooks, and–in some cases–chalk, paper, and pencils.

“One local superintendent’s friend came up to me, with tears in her eyes, and said, ‘We’ve got to get help for students and teachers, to get school going, and to bring normalcy into their lives,'” Johnson said of this first visit to Biloxi, Miss., about a week after Katrina hit.

“Teachers lost their homes, and they were thinking about how to get school back going,” he said.

As of late January, many affected school districts still do not have even damage and recovery cost estimates, let alone federal assistance for rebuilding. Even as schools are reopening and students are slowly returning to their homes, educators still are struggling to make ends meet, calling on the federal government to step up its hurricane relief efforts and provide more guidance for the long road ahead.

In early January, Spellings announced that $253 million from the Hurricane Education Recovery Act was immediately available to restart schools in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. By the end of the month, no federal funding could be confirmed to have reached individual schools.

Of the $1.6 billion that Congress allocated for hurricane relief for schools and colleges in the waning days of 2005, $750 million was intended for restart money, $645 million was to go to help those schools that are absorbing displaced students, and $200 million was intended for colleges and universities. Spellings later announced an additional $30 million would be available for higher-education institutions.

According to ED, storm-ravaged schools that received financial aid before Katrina, but did not use this aid, will be allowed to keep the funds, which reportedly total about $100 million.

Xavier University of New Orleans will be allowed to keep $11.7 million, it was reported; Southern University of New Orleans, more than $9 million; and Delgado Community College in Louisiana, more than $16 million.

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Hurricane Help for Schools
http://www.hurricanehelpforschools.gov

Federal Emergency Management Agency
http://www.fema.gov