The General Assembly met yesterday to allocate almost $400 million for Hurricane Florence recovery efforts around the state. In total, lawmakers are pledging about $800 million, the rest of which will be held back until the state figures out where it is most needed. Lawmakers already allocated about $56 million in a special session a little more than a week ago, bringing the total amount of money being spent on Florence recovery to about $850 million.
Senior House Appropriations Chair Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said this money will not require taxes or cuts to any current programs. The money is coming mostly from the state’s $2 billion rainy day fund.
“This legislation today is an historic response to an historic crisis,” he said during a joint appropriations committee meeting early yesterday evening.
Gov. Roy Cooper had called on the General Assembly to come up with $750 million, but lawmakers upped the ante slightly. Cooper wanted $50 million for the state’s public schools and about $11 million for community colleges.
On education, the General Assembly allocated $60 million for repair and renovations to school buildings affected by the storm. Community colleges will receive $18.5 million. Five million of that will be to provide emergency scholarship grants. Another $5 million will be for repair and renovation to community college facilities. Eight point five million will be to offset shortfalls due to enrollment declines caused by the storm.
The governor wants the state to spend a total of about $1.2 billion on Hurricane Florence recovery, though he only asked for a part of that to be allocated yesterday as a “down payment.”
Rep. Dollar emphasized during the discussion in the joint appropriations committee that what is being allocated now is only a short-term solution.
“It’s still a work in progress. There are still reports that are coming in. There are areas where we’re still not certain of what that final need will be,” he said, adding later: “We will be coming back and addressing additional needs with an even clearer picture.”
Both chambers of the General Assembly passed the legislation unanimously.
Cooper responded to the General Assembly’s passage of the spending package via press release yesterday evening.
“I appreciate legislators responding quickly and taking this initial step to help North Carolinians recover from this devastating storm, particularly in the areas of education and the federal match,” he said. “However, we must continue to work together to provide more for affordable housing and farmers as well as to make real investments to ensure clean water and to lessen the impacts of future storms on our homes, roads, businesses and water infrastructure.”
The release said Cooper would sign the bill “soon.”
Meanwhile, there were still 126 schools closed in eastern North Carolina Monday after Hurricane Florence tore through the coast in September. Some of those students are attending school in buildings other than their closed schools, while others have been completely out of school for more than a month.
Department of Public Instruction (DPI) spokesperson Drew Elliot estimated that at least 6.6 million school days have been lost due to the storm and its flooding and displacement. Elliot got that number by multiplying the number of days missed by the district’s enrollment, or average daily membership (ADM). The calculation does not include missed instructional time in charter schools.
Elliot said DPI has been hearing from concerned parents whose kids are still expected to take upcoming standardized tests and talking to districts about ways to catch students up. Some educators have had difficulty locating displaced students to stay in touch, he said.
“You’ve got the balance of not wanting to punish a district or educators or students for things that were an act of God, but you’ve got to balance that with, the kids need instruction as well, that’s why we have them in school. How are we going to make that up?”
Elliot said, as of Monday, Robeson County had 41 closed schools, Onslow County had 38, Pender County had 16, Craven County had 15, Duplin County had 13, Jones County had two, and Pamlico County had one. Many of the schools are planning to reopen next Monday, Oct. 22, said Jack Hoke, executive director of the North Carolina Superintendents Association. For many, he said, that call is dependent on air quality tests for mold and mildew inside school buildings.
“Obviously the underlying issue with all these schools opening, they’ve got to make sure that they’re looking after the safety of students and staff and they won’t let them back in the buildings until they pass all the air quality tests,” Hoke said.
Most of the schools will eventually reopen. However, in Jones County, the two closed elementary schools will remain that way. Students are split up into the middle and high school for now, and a new K-12 building that was already set to open next school year will house those students in the future.
Elliot said schools are in immediate need of funds to sign remediation contracts for repairs. Cooper announced a $25 million chunk of lottery funds last week. That money is included in the $60 million appropriated last night by lawmakers for public school renovations and repair. Elliot said DPI is working to distribute the lottery funds quickly.
“It’s been a really, really quick turnaround on that, but that’s what we need right now, is quick turnaround and a lack of bureaucracy,” he said. “We want to make sure that those funds are being used for the right purposes, but we are also very cognizant that speed is important here.”
Looking back to 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, Elliot said the missed instructional days did not have a significant impact on students’ end-of-year testing results. WRAL reported that Robeson County Schools were out for about three weeks at the time.
“This is a bigger event, so I’m not saying that will hold here,” Elliot said. “I’m just saying, if we’re looking to that as … any sort of idea of what could happen, that’s the good news.”