Repair or rebuild?

Published 3:37 pm Friday, April 26, 2013

By Kimberly Hopson


LAPLACE – The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Tuesday that the St. John Parish School Board will receive a $4.6 million federal grant to repair damages to Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School caused by Hurricane Isaac, but school board officials said they may not accept the grant.

“We’re still negotiating with FEMA and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness because our goal is to rebuild Lake Pontchartrain, not just repair it. We feel that it’s in the students’ best interest to rebuild it. It’s the normal process of us negotiating to get that done, and $4.6 million is just not enough to rebuild it,” said Felix Boughton, the executive director of business and finance for the school board.

Boughton said the school district has already submitted approximately $65 million in damages for the school system but will probably end up submitting close to $70 million before all is said and done.

FEMA pays 75 percent of the eligible costs of projects, while the state and/or applicants cover the remaining 25 percent — Boughton estimates the school board will need about $17.5 million to cover the difference.

Boughton added that the upcoming bond issue is important for this very reason. On May 4, the St. John Parish school district will have an item on the ballot that would give it the authority to borrow $10,180,000 to help fund those repairs. Boughton hopes the bond issue will be approved.

“If you think about it, we have every argument covered as to what’s gonna happen with the money. Number one, there’s no tax increase in it. Number two, you can visibly see where the money’s going. Number three, what people generally look at it is, is it needed? To me, it’s a slam dunk of what’s needed for the parish,” he said.

With a large portion of her staff and students displaced, it’s easy to understand that Lake Pontchartrain Principal Sylvia Bailey is feeling the pressure to get her students back into their own school.

“We’re facing a lot of obstacles right now, and we need to be in one place. The school year ends next month, and there’s still no answer for what’s going to happen to us next year. We just can’t start next year off like we’re ending this year — that’s frustration on the teachers, the parents and us. We need some answers,” she said.

Bailey said she was unaware of the issue until it appeared in the news earlier in this week but thinks that it might be a good option for the board to just accept the money. In addition, Bailey said her school is still struggling for teaching supplies despite donations because the staff was never allowed back into the school to retrieve their things.

“We need to be in one location next year. We’re in desperate need of it. I’m all for (the grant) at this point, (if it means) fixing the school and getting us all in one place. $4.6 million? I don’t see why that’s not enough to repair the school,” she said.

The newly awarded funds are a portion of the more than $225 million in total Public Assistance recovery dollars approved for the state since the Aug. 29, 2012, disaster declaration. The district has submitted its plans for rebuilding to FEMA and has been awaiting approval from the federal agency before it can proceed with the needed repairs. Passage of the ballot measure would allow the district to have the funds on hand once that approval is received. Once FEMA reimburses the state of Louisiana, it is the state’s responsibility to manage the funds, which includes making disbursements to local jurisdictions and organizations that incurred costs.