Post-Katrina school districts still have a long way to go

Published 3:26 pm Wednesday, May 9, 2007

More than 20 months after Hurricane Katrina, most school districts in South Mississippi still are struggling to repair the damage, settle with insurance companies and balance their budgets.

Most superintendents say it will take years to get everything done, but they do feel like they’ve made progress since the storm.

Many districts have completed major repairs, such as roofs and water damage, and superintendents hope to complete minor repairs this summer. In districts where schools must rebuild, however, most are just in the planning stages.

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“I expect we’ll be another four to five years before we get this closed out,” said Henry Arledge, superintendent of the Harrison County School District. “We could easily have another storm before we’re finished. It’s a matter of working through all this, and it just takes time.”

The district’s enrollment is down nearly 500 students from before Katrina, but with people continuing to move away from the coastline, Arledge doesn’t expect that to continue.

In fact, the School Board was expected to award bids on Monday to build a new D’Iberville High School and an additional high school in western Harrison County to accommodate future growth.

The Pass Christian School District lost all its schools but one, DeLisle Elementary. The high school reopened earlier this year, but officials still are working on plans for a new K-8 school.

“We’re close,” Superintendent Sue Matheson said. “It’s just been a little more complicated because we’re relying on FEMA for money, and we have other things going on that property.”

The middle school property also will house the Boys and Girls Club and a day care center.

Long Beach is going through something similar. The district is waiting on its final settlement for repairs to other schools but still is working with FEMA to get money to cover infrastructure costs for a new Harper McCaughan Elementary.

The school on Jeff Davis was destroyed, and Superintendent Carrolyn Hamilton said the new school likely will be built on Pineville Road.

“We would like to break ground by August or September, but we’re still waiting on FEMA,” she said. “We tried to stress to (FEMA) that we need to start building as soon as possible.”

Districts such as Pass Christian, Long Beach and Bay St. Louis also have suffered a reduction in tax revenue because so many of their businesses were lost. Also, most districts along the Coast still are down between 400 and 1,000 students since Katrina.

The amount of money districts receive from the state is based partly on enrollment, but the Legislature voted not to penalize districts for the loss of students. That move, plus the vote to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, is helping the budgets.