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Federal Help for Gulf Coast Colleges Said To Fall Short

Federal Help for Gulf Coast Colleges Said To Fall Short


To speed up the recovery of educational institutions damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Democrats on the U.S. House of Representatives’ Education Committee have called for the creation of an Education Recovery Czar and the transfer of Gulf Coast education recovery duties from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Department of Education.

The recommendations came in a report issued Wednesday that was critical of the government’s response to the recovery needs of the education sector. In March, a delegation of House Democrats, led by U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., visited hurricane-affected schools and colleges and held public forums, which led to the recommendations.

“What we saw were schools and colleges struggling mightily to reopen. They did not have a partner in FEMA,” Miller said at a hearing, which also featured select Gulf Coast educators pleading for more federal money and flexible laws to speed up recovery.

Institutions across the Gulf Coast, but particularly in New Orleans, have been forced to lay off faculty, reduce course offerings and increase class sizes to compensate for the loss of tuition revenue and the rebuilding costs. Tulane University, the largest employer in New Orleans, suffered more than $150 million in physical damage. It had to borrow that amount and more, maxing out its borrowing capacity, in order to open last January. Dillard University has laid off two-thirds of its faculty, and is currently holding classes in a hotel which also houses most of its students and remaining faculty.

Dr. Scott Cowen, president of Tulane, and Dr. Marvalene Hughes, president of historically Black Dillard, urged support of a U.S. Senate proposal that would provide cash-strapped colleges with immediate gap funding in the form of loans.

“New Orleans and its surrounding region cannot recover without the survival of its colleges and universities. Higher education pumps approximately $3 billion each year into the region’s economy,” says Cowen, adding that Tulane hasn’t received any money from FEMA.

The fraction of public K-12 schools that have reopened are overcrowded, haven’t been able to access emergency funds fast enough and are hamstrung by inflexible laws. For instance, schools are unable to tap funds for specialty programs like drug-abuse prevention, which would be better spent on basic needs like rehiring teachers.

In most cases, FEMA only reimburses schools for the expenses associated with their repairs, but many schools are running out of money to make the repairs in the first place. FEMA spokesman James McIntyre says the disaster response agency can only provide direct financial assistance to publicly owned schools for repair costs for damaged facilities, computers, desks and other equipment. That help does not include reimbursements for salary losses. Private universities, like Tulane and Dillard, could assist their students in getting housing trailers, but wouldn’t otherwise qualify for direct financial help.

“We have supported the schools that we have the legal authority to support,” McIntyre says.

Republicans say bureaucracy at the state level is holding up the distribution of approved funds — the $95 million Congress allocated to the Louisiana board of regents is just now reaching colleges. They also accuse the Democrats of trying to create yet another level of bureaucracy with an education czar.

“The bottom line is we need to find ways to ensure bureaucracy remains apart from the education recovery process as much as possible,” says U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif, the chair of the committee. “Some on the other side of the aisle complain about the slow response, but then support adding more government into the equation. That only complicates the problem. The correct approach is to focus on speed, efficiency, and less — not more — layers of bureaucracy.”

Democrats also recommended adequate funding to help schools rebuild, a cost they put in the “several billions.”

“It’s expensive, but it has to be done,” Miller says. “The recovery of higher education institutions in New Orleans is the absolute catalyst to the long-term recovery in New Orleans.”

— Toni Coleman

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