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State assesses damage from Hurricane Florence

Members of the State Board of Education got an idea of what the state’s public school system is dealing with in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence: millions in damage, road closures, schools abandoned, and families displaced.

Eileen Townsend, the state Department of Public Instruction’s chief of insurance, said the state is looking at $40 million in claims so far from a mixture of districts and community colleges. That amount is likely to increase. 

“This situation is fluid, and it continues to change because we’re hearing from schools, they’re finding damage, we’re learning every day about the devastation from this hurricane,” Townsend said. 

That money only counts schools that are insured through the state. DPI has an insurance fund that covers 85 school districts and 32 community colleges. In all, the fund has received 125 claims, amounting to about $30 million in damage for school districts and $10 million for community colleges. 

“This hurricane has produced claims in excess of what the fund has ever seen before,” Townsend said. 

Lynn Harvey, the head of DPI’s child nutrition efforts, said that schools will lose about $14 million in money it would have received from the federal government thanks to Hurricane Florence. Meanwhile, schools have also lost about $2 million in food and equipment because of damages. 

Harvey said that employees compensated under child nutrition funds that come from the federal government will lose about $6.5 million in pay because of missed school days. However, that exact amount was appropriated by the General Assembly during its special session Tuesday to ensure those workers continue to get paid. 

Kevin Harrison, head of DPI’s transportation services, said that districts are prepared to take kids to school, though in some districts, they are waiting for schools to actually open up before they can do that. 

Harrison noted that Jones, Lenoir, and Robeson County’s school transportation facilities did suffer more damage than most, though it was relatively minor in Lenoir and Jones. 

“In Robeson, it was different,” he said. “In Robeson, the water was above desk level in their garage.” 

He said that though Robeson’s school transportation services aren’t at 100 percent, they are ready to take kids back to school when the district opens back up. 

The Board also heard more about FAST NC, which stands for Florence Aid to Students and Teachers of North Carolina. It is a bipartisan effort that includes both Republican Superintendent Mark Johnson and former Superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat. It will take donations through the NC Education Fund and redirect them to districts in need. 

Board members weighed in on the hurricane and efforts to deal with the aftermath. Board member Wayne McDevitt said he was happy with the state’s response.

“I am so proud of North Carolina,” he said. “The people just step up and everybody just rolls the sleeves up and says let’s get to work.” 

Lisa Godwin, the teacher-of-the-year advisor to the Board, said she was particularly heartened by the bipartisan nature with which the General Assembly came together Tuesday to craft legislation that will help North Carolina schools. 

“Hearing them work together in a bipartisan manner was just the most beautiful thing,” Godwin said.

In addition to ensuring that educators and staff continue to get paid, the legislation passed during the special session forgives missed days for districts affected by the hurricane. See the details here

Governor Roy Cooper also signed the legislation into law today. He made the following comments via a press release. 

“Hurricane Florence has deeply wounded North Carolina, but working together, we’ll recover smarter and stronger. The bills I’ve signed today help students and teachers, protect voter access and make an initial down payment on the cost of this recovery. When a storm rolls in, it doesn’t come with a party label and our response can’t either. I will continue working with legislators from both parties to help Florence survivors,” he said.

New board members

The State Board also swore in two new Board members Wednesday. JB Buxton and Jill Camnitz joined the Board this month. James Ford, former teacher of the year, will join the Board as well, possibly as early as next month. 

Governor Roy Cooper described the three’s credentials in a press release:

Camnitz is chair of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Coastal Plain Board of Directors. Camnitz also serves on the Parents for Public Schools of Pitt County, Pitt County Educational Foundation and Brody Foundation. She previously served as a member and as chair for the Pitt County Board of Education.”

“Ford is the principal at Filling the Gap Education Consultants, LLC and serves as co-chair for the Leading on Opportunity Council in Charlotte. Ford previously served as the program director at the Public School Forum of North Carolina and was the North Carolina State Teacher of the Year during 2014-2015.” 

Buxton is the founding principal of the Education Innovations Group and has also worked as the deputy state superintendent of the North Carolina Department for Public Instruction. Buxton has served as an appointed member of the Raleigh Planning Commission and as a soccer coach with the Capital Area Soccer League.”

The three replace Bill Cobey, Becky Taylor, and Greg Alcorn, all of whom vacated their seats ahead of the end of their terms. Because of that, Cooper was able to appoint people to fill the remainder of the terms, bypassing the need to get approval from the General Assembly. 

In the case of Buxton, that worked in Cooper’s favor. Cooper tried to appoint Buxton as one of the replacements for Wayne McDevitt and Patricia Willoughby, both of whom are still serving on the Board despite the fact that their terms ended in March 2017. The General Assembly rejected Buxton in the short session of the General Assembly. 

Editor’s note: 

The NC Center for Public Policy Research has a contract with James Ford’s consulting company, Filling the Gap Education Consultants, LLC,  to conduct a three-year study of inequity in education across North Carolina. 

JB Buxton is former member of EducationNC’s Board of Directors.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.