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Federal Agencies, Congress Mull Katrina Aid Packages

Federal Agencies, Congress Mull Katrina Aid Packages
Initiatives aim to return students to the classroom, rebuild affected colleges and universities

By Charles Dervarics

With many Black colleges and other universities still reeling across the Gulf Coast, the Bush administration and African-American lawmakers are proposing new initiatives to rebuild facilities and return students to the classroom.

Action in Washington, D.C., is moving ahead on two fronts, with members of Congress offering high-cost reconstruction plans while federal agencies are funding more modest, targeted assistance. While much remains unresolved — including long-term funding in a tight fiscal climate — Gulf Coast education leaders say they are encouraged by the effort so far.

“The outpouring of support has been tremendous,” says Dr. Walter L. Strong, vice president for advancement at historically Black Dillard University in New Orleans. His institution is seeking $347 million to rebuild facilities and to support faculty and students displaced by the hurricane.

“We have been walking the halls of Congress looking to maximize flexibility and support,” he says. “The wheels of Washington turn slowly, but you have to stay at it.”

While many aid packages are still in the proposal stage, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is moving ahead with grant competitions for Gulf Coast HBCUs and other affected colleges.

Named Universities Rebuilding America Partnerships, the program includes $3.6 million solely for HBCUs, plus another $2 million competition for HBCUs and other colleges. For the larger pot of money, institutions can seek grants to fund clearance and demolition, rehabilitation activities, assistance to community-based organizations, public service activities, distance-learning programs and other community activities. Individual grants are being capped at $350,000.
The remaining $2 million is available for architectural partnerships involving higher education institutions.

“These universities will use their great talents and energy to partner with communities that have been affected by the hurricanes as we seek to rebuild the Gulf,” said HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson in announcing the initiative last month.

While these funds already are out for disbursement, the Congressional Black Caucus is setting its sights higher with a $3 billion program to help rebuild colleges and universities devastated by Katrina. The CBC says 30 colleges and universities serving 100,000 students sustained direct damage from the hurricane, and those institutions employed 30,000 faculty, administrators and staff.

The caucus’ plan — the Hurricane Katrina Recovery, Reclamation, Restoration, Reconstruction and Reunion Act — is a “humane attempt to create funding and aid to those in dire straights,” says U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., the CBC’s vice chair. Aside from higher education components, the bill also contains funding for K-12 education, health care, housing and unemployment assistance. Other provisions call for a new anti-poverty effort and a victims fund similar to the one used after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A summary of the bill says that revitalizing colleges and universities “will be a vital element in attracting middle- and upper-income families back to the Gulf Coast region.”

Within the higher education pot, half of funds would go toward need-based aid for students in the 2005-2006 school year and the succeeding four years. Funds could cover tuition, fees and textbooks, and colleges could employ students to help rebuild facilities. Also under this provision, colleges could create innovative work/study options, provide room and board and develop strategies to attract first-generation and minority students.

Colleges could use the remaining funds to provide incentives for faculty to stay in the Gulf Coast region. Universities could provide temporary housing for returning faculty, continue salaries and benefits for up to one year, provide tuition aid to faculty and create innovative work and research projects.

Another provision of the bill would provide loan forgiveness to students who return to or enroll at a college affected by Katrina. Full-time students would receive $2,500 in loan forgiveness for each academic year, with some benefits for part-time students. Overall, this project would cost about $1.6 billion, with funds available through 2013.

CBC leaders say the legislation is a comprehensive approach to address the problems of Gulf Coast residents. “We cannot allow their plight to become yesterday’s news as the nation goes back to business-as-usual or as the nation goes back to the next news item of the week,” says U.S. Rep. Melvin L. Watt, D-N.C., the CBC’s chair.

The bill has not yet moved forward in Congress, where many Republican leaders want offsetting budget cuts to cover Katrina-related spending.
But while budget debates continue, the House and Senate have given the U.S. Department of Education more flexibility in campus-based aid programs that may help Gulf Coast students. The plan approved by Congress and signed by President Bush would waive some requirements and reallocation formulas in the work/study and Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant program.

“This bipartisan bill could result in an additional $36 million in aid this year for students and colleges impacted by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita,” says U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif.

Despite these actions, colleges hard hit by the disaster continue to face

serious challenges. Dillard is still cleaning up after some buildings were inundated with 8 to 10 feet of standing water. The university is planning to offer classes next spring and began accepting registration from students in November. Nonetheless, the college recently announced layoffs of many staff for at least a short period of time. No tenured faculty members were affected.

“This is an extremely difficult decision,” said Dr. Marvalene Hughes, the university president, in a statement announcing the layoffs. But she noted the university still had met payroll for the past two months without any operating revenue. “This was a catastrophic event that nearly destroyed our beloved university,” Hughes said.

On Capitol Hill, much of the media attention has focused on
K-12 education issues, particularly a debate over the use of vouchers. But Dillard officials say policymakers are taking an active interest in the higher education sector. “We think there is significant interest,” Strong says. “All segments of education need to be given some recovery support.”

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