FEMA Won't Reimburse Texas Schools

9-13-05 - Texas schools won't get federal emergency funds to pay for additional teachers and textbooks to accommodate students displaced by Hurricane Katrina, according to a memo released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Texas schools will need an estimated $450 million to educate the anticipated influx of students displaced by the hurricane. Officials had hoped those costs would be covered by grants from FEMA because Texas has been included in the disaster declaration.

But, according to a FEMA memo sent to state officials on Saturday, Texas schools will be eligible for reimbursement for temporary classroom buildings, mental health counselors and school computers. Hiring additional teachers and the purchase of books is not eligible "at this time," according to the memo.

Texas officials are still hoping other federal money will be available to them to cover a major cost to schools handling students from the disaster.

"This is just the FEMA relief part, this is not the whole picture," said Gov. Rick Perry's spokesman, Robert Black. "We fully expect the U.S. Department of Education to pay for the costs of educating the thousands of new students Texas is going to have in public schools. That is the request we have in to the federal government."

In total, at least 372,000 students have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and there are no clear answers about where the money will come from to educate them, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said Monday.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley anticipated spending about $7,500 per student for the current school year. That would amount to more than $450 million in needed state funding to cover the costs of educating an estimated 60,000 school-age evacuees.

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said his office is continuing to work with FEMA and the U.S. Department of Education to find available funds for Texas schools.

"This is an unprecedented event, no state has ever taken in a quarter of a million people virtually over night, including school children," said Cornyn spokesman Don Stewart. "So we need to look at different ways of doing things so that Texas isn't left with the costs of their good deed."

Neeley also requested waivers for several federal requirements, including a federal law that prohibits homeless students to be segregated from the general school population; flexibility for districts in assigning students to campuses; and sharing student records.

"The presence of so many students removed from their regular schools poses serious challenges for Texas at both the state and local levels," Neeley wrote in the letter. "Obviously, enrolling and educating thousands of evacuees will significantly impact state and local budgets."

Both the Dallas and Houston school districts have began reviewing applications to hire additional teachers. By Friday, more than 28,000 displaced students had already enrolled in Texas schools and the number was going up daily, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency spokeswoman.