In South Texas, students await return to hurricane-ravaged schools

3:50 p.m Friday, Oct. 6, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Ralph Barrera
Ermelinda Alvarado and her 8-year-old twins, Audrie and Jacob Alvarado, stand in what’s left of their family home after it was destroyed in Hurricane Harvey. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Dylan Samora started his junior year at a new school. An athlete and straight-A student, he’s being challenged academically and has been invited to join the football team. But that doesn’t matter to the 16-year-old for one reason — he’s not in Aransas Pass High School.

“The punch in the gut is not knowing when you can go back or if anything will be the same,” said Dylan, who has been attending Carrizo Springs High School for the past month, about three hours from Aransas Pass.

Hurricane Harvey forced Dylan from his Aransas Pass home that he shared with his mother and 11-year-old sister, as well as from Aransas Pass High School, which he calls his second home.

Harvey ripped through 60 counties along the Texas coast in late August, forcing 1.4 million students to miss at least some school. Three districts — Aransas Pass, Aransas County and Port Aransas, all just north of Corpus Christi — are still mostly or completely shuttered.

Many students in those three school districts have enrolled in nearby districts including Sinton, Ingleside and Gregory-Portland. The latter’s student population has ballooned from 5,000 to 7,000, according to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. Hundreds more students are not going to school, as their parents struggle to rebuild their homes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will pick up most of the tab for the damage to campuses and facilities.

Still, Texas Education Agency officials estimate the state could spend $1.55 billion to make up for revenue declines that Harvey-ravaged school districts will experience.

“There will be greater costs to the state associated with this hurricane than we have seen in the past with any other natural disaster. The large cost to the state will be in the area of public education,” said Comptroller Glenn Hegar during a Texas House Appropriations Committee hearing Monday.

Construction crews have been working feverishly at all five of Aransas Pass school district’s campuses to get the 1,800-student district back online. The first school to reopen was an elementary school on Thursday. Classes will resume for all students in the district Oct. 16.

But some students, like Dylan, don’t know when they’ll be returning even after schools reopen. With so many homes destroyed or uninhabitable, there is a shortage of rental homes, so many families who had evacuated aren’t able to return.

Dylan, his sister and his mother, Kathy Castro, who works as a physical education teacher aide at a district elementary school, are staying near her brother’s home in Carrizo Springs.

“I’m stressed out daily. I make phone calls and I’m on the internet trying to see if there’s anything affordable for me and the kids, and unfortunately there hasn’t been,” Castro said. “I pray … every day that we can get back home.”

Aransas Pass Superintendent Mark Kemp estimates that the district suffered $6 million to $8 million in damage.

Roaring winds demolished the press box in the football stadium, punched holes in school signs and windows, downed light poles and flung outdoor bleachers so far that district officials still can’t find them.

The worst damage occurred at A.C. Blunt Middle School, which won’t be open until November or later. Sixth- and seventh-graders will attend one of the elementary schools, and eighth-graders will go to the high school.

Harvey tore 10-ton air-conditioning units from the roof, leaving gaping holes. Rain that poured through the holes destroyed almost everything inside.

The desks are gone, even as some posters and college flags still cling to undamaged walls. Throughout the darkened halls, drop ceilings have been removed, laying bare electrical wires. Large industrial fans were still blowing on a recent weekday afternoon.

Charlie Ochoa, a former special education teacher who is now the director of maintenance and transportation for the school district, inspected an empty classroom that used to be his.

“It was like being in a blender for hours,” he said of the Harvey. Ochoa left town just as the storm hit.

“I’m a lifelong resident here, so I’ve been through hurricanes. I kind of knew what to expect. But in my lifetime, I’ve never had a direct hit like this, and you don’t ever expect what’s afterwards,” he said.

Kemp estimates about 400 Aransas Pass students are enrolled in other districts. Some teachers are also teaching in nearby districts. The Aransas Pass district, the biggest employer in the area, has continued to pay all employees.

Kemp’s hopeful that most teachers and students will return by Oct. 16.

Although insurance companies and FEMA will pay for most storm damage costs to school districts, Harvey will hit the 2018-19 state budget hard.

The state funds schools based on student enrollment, and with enrollment expected to decline in districts affected by Harvey, a drop in state funding could force those districts to make cuts to staff.

To stave off such a possibility, TEA officials estimate spending $1.55 billion over the next two years on Harvey-related costs. Here’s the breakdown:

• $315 million to school districts to help them cope with enrollment declines over the next two years.

• $266 million to school districts to help educate more students who have become low-income. More children also will become eligible for free prekindergarten, which TEA also will have to cover.

• $2 million to regional education service centers, which have been supporting Harvey-affected school districts.

• $974 million in forgone recapture payments, which TEA officials say is a very rough estimate. Property-wealthy school districts like Port Aransas and Aransas County typically make recapture payments to the state to help support property-poor school districts. However, state law permits school districts affected by natural disasters to deduct from recapture payments the amount of money spent on disaster recovery not covered by insurance or FEMA.

Over the next two years, TEA also expects to pick up some of the tab for damage to school district facilities and plugging any loss in property tax revenue due to declining property values and tax collections. Some districts expect at least a 50 percent loss in such money, according to TEA officials. Property taxes pay for the daily operations of a school district and also repay bonds that districts issue to build new schools. The Aransas Pass school district passed an $18 million bond package last year.

When it reconvenes in January 2019, the Legislature will look to fill the funding hole in the 2018-19 budget as well as consider legislation addressing long-term issues including mental health services for children and teachers affected by Harvey.

“We know from Katrina, we know from Ike, we know from other large natural disasters that the incidences of post-traumatic stress among students … and for staff skyrockets,” Morath said during the appropriations hearing last week. “That has ancillary, longer-term implications.”

It’s already stressful for 15-year-old Faith Cangelosi, whose gutted five-bedroom home is less than a block from Aransas Pass schools. She didn’t want to fall behind in pre-AP Algebra 2, so her parents rented a house in the Gregory-Portland school district and enrolled her and her two younger brothers in schools there shortly after the storm hit.

Faith said she’s struggling to catch up in her new school.

”I’m really shy, and going to a new school, all the kids are used to each other. It’s really hard in my classes,” Faith said. “I’m exhausted all the time.”

Her oldest brother, Joey Cangelosi, a senior and member of almost all Aransas Pass High School teams, refuses to go to a rival district, so he’s waiting until Oct. 16 to return to school.

Like Joey, Ermelinda Alvarado’s three children haven’t enrolled in a new school yet.

She and her family evacuated to three cities after Harvey lifted the roof off their home, destroying almost everything inside. By the time they returned to Aransas Pass two weeks later, neighboring school districts had already reached their student capacities. Enrolling them in school districts farther away and juggling her job at the Aransas County tax assessor-collector’s office in Rockport would have been a logistical nightmare.

Standing amid three brick walls of what’s left of their home, 8-year-old Audrie Alvarado and her twin brother, Jacob, said the first day of school will mean being able to hug their teachers and play with friends.

“I’m ready for them to get back in school and get our normal routine started,” said Ermelinda Alvarado. “We’re just a mess” right now, she said.

Aransas Pass High School football players are still going to practice, playing games and participating in pep rallies. Alvarado’s 15-year-old son goes to practice every afternoon.

TEA has granted attendance waivers to Aransas Pass so that students like Alvarado’s children won’t be considered truant, Kemp said. Teachers are weighing plans to hold school on Saturdays and classes in the evenings, or cutting into holiday breaks, so that students will be caught up by the end of the school year.

Kemp said whether they like it or not, students will have to be prepared to take state mandated tests in the spring.

An online petition to cancel testing has generated more than 238,000 signatures. Morath said he has not made a decision on a reprieve from testing or accountability requirements.

Veronica Johnson, Aransas Pass school board president and mother of two high school seniors, is pleading with the state to relax standards.

“Students have anxiety. Those types of test gives them anxiety. This type of situation has given them anxiety,” she said. “It’s been traumatic. They’ve been displaced. Some of them, their lives have been completely changed. Even though our students will be making up time … please take into consideration what our children have endured since Hurricane Harvey.”

View full experience