SENATORS GAUGE HURRICANE IMPACT ON SCHOOLS
|Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro (right) talks with Committee Vice-Chair Dan Patrick before today's Education Committee meeting about the impact of Hurricane Ike on Gulf Coast area schools.|
(AUSTIN) — Members of the Senate Education Committee heard testimony Tuesday from officials representing school districts that were hit hard by Hurricane Ike in September. The category 2 storm left a wake of destruction along the Texas coast, displacing thousands of families and destroying billions in property. School officials in these areas have been scrambling to repair and rebuild, while trying to offer adequate education services. Tuesday's meeting served as an opportunity for lawmakers to connect with local superintendents about what happened and what the state can do in the future to help get schools up and running after such storms.
Dr. Ray Glenn of the Texas Education Agency offered an overall picture of Ike's impact on the school districts along the Gulf Coast. Districts including Galveston and Bridge City were hardest hit, and the overall cost to repair and rebuild in affected districts could top $300 million, he said. Nearly 7,900 students were displaced by the storm, and as of January, 6,900 still have not returned to their home districts. Glenn said that Commissioner Robert Scott offered districts 10 day waivers so that missed days did not count against schools. While some districts were able to forgo the waivers and make up days, Glenn said some schools missed as many as 21 days.
Glenn testified that the response from FEMA has not been adequate. "I think its been extremely disappointing to the agency, to the school districts, to the Governor's office, and all of us in the state," he said. Glenn pointed to the immediate aftermath of hurricanes Rita and Katrina, where FEMA distributed federal aid to Louisiana school districts within 3 months. He said most districts have yet to see any federal aid, and some districts have not applied for aid, given the complicated bureaucratic requirements surrounding such requests. "Why can't Texas be treated the same way that Louisiana was," asked Glenn.
|Senator Craig Estes of Wichita Falls talks about the importance of eminent domain reform following today's session. Behind him are (l-to-r) Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy and Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock.|
As far as room for improvement on the state side, Glenn said that getting power to schools was the biggest challenge. This was complicated by problems with communication in afflicted areas, as land lines and even cell towers were destroyed by the storm. He said his agency is looking into obtaining satellite phones, to ensure robust communication during future emergencies. Glenn added that looking forward, the agency should look at getting emergency power generators for districts to minimize the time between power loss and restoration.
Also Tuesday, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst announced that he has prioritized a bill to reform the eminent domain process in the state, where private land is taken by the government to benefit the public interest. Senate Bill 18, carried by Wichita Falls Senator Craig Estes, would narrowly define public use, fair compensation, including for diminished access, for property taken by the state, and directs the Comptroller to study next interim which government entities can exercise eminent domain. Estes said this is an issue that must be resolved this session. "When we have this necessary evil of eminent domain," he said, "make sure that the property that is taken is for the public good." He added that if the land is not used by the government within 10 years, his bill would require the state to sell the land back at the price that it was purchased.
The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, February 11, at 10:15 a.m.