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Viewpoints: Texas should keep promise to Harvey-hit school districts

State officials have promised Hurricane Harvey-affected school districts – some of which have yet to reopen their doors – that Texas will be there to help them rebuild safe and healthy communities for students and educators.

It’s imperative that state leaders deliver on their promise to those most affected by Harvey’s epic destruction. Texas can’t afford to cut corners, especially in the school districts most severely beaten by the storm. The lives that depend on fulfilling the promise are the future business, education and community leaders of Texas. Promises kept will ensure a brighter tomorrow in those affected areas and beyond.

Steps like those taken on Thursday when the House Public Education Committee heard from Harvey-affected school districts are a good sign that the state is making good on their vow. During the committee hearing, school district officials voiced what they most need from Texas in their recovery efforts. The committee will meet again in two weeks to decide how to respond.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: Struggling after Harvey, Texas schools plead for relief from state.

Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance companies will pick up most of the tab for storm damage to campuses and facilities, it is the state that will need to address the financial burdens to school districts that will be triggered by weakened public school funding streams, such as enrollment and property taxes.

House committee members focused Thursday on addressing the immediate needs facing affected school districts, but in the coming weeks, state officials must ensure they address the long-term social impact associated with recovery, like mental health issues that will certainly arise later. It can take months for trauma symptoms caused by a natural disaster experience – including loss of a loved one or the destruction of a home – to surface, according to various studies.

Harvey dumped as much as 50 inches of rain in some parts of Texas, killed 77 people, and destroyed entire communities along the Coastal Bend. Gov. Greg Abbott has estimated the tab for disaster recovery could hit $180 billion.

Aiding affected schools will be among the costliest tasks for the state, Comptroller Glenn Hegar said last week. It’s easy to see why: Harvey ripped through 60 counties along the Texas coast, forcing 1.4 million students to miss at least some school.

Officials expect more than a 50-percent loss in property value in areas hit hardest by Harvey. That could be a significant blow to some school districts, because property taxes are used to pay for their daily operations and to repay debt.

COMPTROLLER: Lawmakers face $2 billion Hurricane Harvey bill.

Schools may also be hurt by a decline in student enrollment and daily attendance; both help determine how much money the state doles out to a school district. With so many homes destroyed or uninhabitable — and a shortage of rental homes — many families are unable to return to their home school districts, leaving officials there fearing a decrease in state funding.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) officials estimate it will cost the state more than $1.6 billion over the next two years to help hurricane-ravaged schools rebuild and avoid financial losses.

Texas has about $94 million more than initially anticipated this budget year to use over the next two years. Hagar expects that money will be used to cover Harvey-related costs, including to help affected school districts.

We agree with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that the Legislature should use the so-called rainy day fund, the state’s savings account, to pay for Harvey damages not covered by the current budget.

State funds to repair the massive damage left by Harvey should be earmarked not only to repair or replace damaged structures and to allow the reopening of schools. They should also be used to ensure the well-being of students and staff.

Last week, the TEA, the Higher Education Coordinating Board and the state Health and Human Services Commission announced a task force to connect public schools and universities with mental health services to deal with the traumatic effects of Harvey. Experts say the effects can last years if not addressed.

TEXAS SMALL TOWNS: On the Texas Coast, a recovery haunted by the past.

Because the task force is still in its early stages, however, officials don’t how much funding will be needed for school districts or what mental health services — if any — the state will provide. Officials also don’t know what local programs are available. For now, the task force offers an online list of state-level resources across the three agencies for school districts to consider.

State officials need to hammer out those details soon, preferably within the coming weeks. Schools districts — including those in affected smaller communities far from urban areas — should know by January how the mental health of students and staff will be assessed, what funding will be available and where services can be accessed.

Officials should not wait until January 2019, when the Legislature reconvenes, to address long-term issues like mental health services for children and teachers affected by Harvey.

State officials’ guarantee to have the backs of Harvey-battered school districts means Texas should help them meet their immediate and long-term recovery needs. Anything short of that will be a broken promise.

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