The flood waters have long subsided, but school districts in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast still face tremendous challenges related to their educational and support services budgets, student ridership eligibility and age and quality of their school bus fleets.
In Orleans Parish, Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parish, for example, many school buses were destroyed by flood waters following the levy breaks. Cameron Parish’s fleet escaped Katrina only to be hit hard by Hurricane Rita about a month later. While FEMA relief funds helped, some districts were forced to replace their entire fleets at once. This means the districts will be forced to replace dozens if not hundreds of school buses in the future as opposed to relying on a traditional replacement cycle of several buses a year.
“We have newer buses on road, but when it comes time to start replacing them, it’s going to be that all of them will need to be replaced at one time,” commented George Horne, a pupil transportation consultant and former transportation director at Jefferson Parish.
The state funding formula is also problematic. School districts are required to provide transportation to all students, both in public and non-public schools, who live more than one mile from the campuses they attend. Meanwhile, transportation funding has been cut for non-public student ridership, meaning that the parishes are being forced to eat those additional costs, Horne added.
Michael Coburn, the director of school bus operations at the Louisiana Department of Education and a former transportation director and superintendent at St. John the Baptist Parish Schools west of New Orleans, said the state is currently developing cost-cutting measures to help schools identify where to implement additional efficiencies in their operations. He said that parents are growing aggravated at increased budget cuts, changing of school bus routes, increased student walking distances to bus stops and longer ride times. Meanwhile, parish school boards are continuing to be choked by rising costs tied to providing transportation services, especially as diesel fuel grows more expensive.
At the heart of this is student enrollment. State funding levels depend on the number of kids in the classroom and, as an extension of that, the number of kids on board school buses. But many families still have yet to return to New Orleans or left for good. Further damaging the local economy is the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf.
“It’s kind of difficult to sort now what the post-Katrina effect is versus the oil spill effect when it comes to the economy and how it’s affecting school districts,” Horne said.
A result is that many parishes have turned to contracted busing by the likes of First Student and Durham School Services. Additionally, the city has seen an increase in charter schools, which are being managed by the University of New Orleans along with several private companies and non-profits. These charters are also increasing turning to contractors to help solve their transportation needs.
The Department of Education also is overseeing the Louisiana Recovery School District, or RSD, a three-region consortium of 82 schools, 67 in the New Orleans area alone, tasked with rebuilding sites damaged by Katrina and the resulting floods. While several obliterated school sites have fully re-opened in New Orleans proper, RSD is only in phase one of its construction projects. Still-closed schools and neighborhoods that remain vacant shanty towns of their former self continue to hurt.
“It’s still hard for all of us,” said Gary Martin, transportation director at St. Charles Parish Schools west of New Orleans that was sparred the brunt of the flooding. “Basically we’ve heard something about Hurricane Katrina everyday. It brings back a lot of memories. We’re all being reminded of what it was like when the storm hit and what we went through afterward.”
He added that St. Charles employees worked 40 days in a row after Hurricane Katrina while assisting with an evacuation of some 2,000 people from harder hit areas in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. Similar recovery and relief was seen and continues to occur in places like Biloxi, Gulfport and Ocean Springs, Miss.
Sam Bailey, the transportation director for Biloxi Public Schools, said three elementary schools were closed and sixth grade was consolidated into junior high. And the school district has lost about 20 percent of its pre-Katrina student enrollment. He added that it appeared that many families that evacuated before or immediately after the storm hit had permanently re-located in other areas, such as north of Interstate 10 where smaller towns have boomed over the last few years.
That has lead to a silver lining. Bailey said federal money to repair and expand highway infrastructure has lead to an improved evacuation route out of the city. Yet, economic challenges still remain. Katrina hurt Biloxi’s tax base and insurance premiums have skyrocketed. It’s also kept tourists away from the local casinos.
Still, Gulf Coast residents like Coburn at the Louisiana DOE are trying to remain positive and forward thinking.
“It was devastating to everybody here. But [in] Louisiana, we’re resilient. We’ll come back,” said Coburn at the state DOE. “People have really bonded together, not only in school districts but our entire educational family. We’re just getting through an oil spill that threw us for a loop, but if we can get through Katrina we can get through anything.”