After the shock of a disaster has abated, the community begins to think about restoring normalcy. Bringing back school operation is a top priority, since it allows faculty and staff to get back to work and brings students back to the city. But this can take time. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, it took several months for a few schools to return to operation, and almost two years before there was enough building capacity to meet the demands of the families returning to New Orleans.
States have an opportunity to assist communities in their efforts to rebuild better than before. All federal disaster funds flow through states to local communities, and most local communities are unprepared because they do not manage these funding sources on a regular basis. States are well positioned to provide technical expertise to local leaders and to help manage recovery and envision what the future can hold for a community, including its school system.
State governments should support efforts at the local level not only to recover from a disaster, but also to ensure community resilience after future events. Based on my experience in rebuilding the school system after Hurricane Katrina, here are a few recommendations for how states can assist.
1. Help local governments develop and adopt a master plan immediately.
One of the major obstacles to rebuilding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was the lack of a comprehensive rebuilding plan. School reconstruction had to wait until the city’s plan could be decided, thus delaying when students could safely return to school.
Many federal funding streams require the existence of a community-wide plan, developed with community input. This process can be lengthy and contentious. In New Orleans, it took two years to develop a plan for the city, then another year to develop a plan specifically for the schools, which had not had a master plan since the 1950s.
Prior to Katrina, the Recovery School District of Louisiana—a statewide school district of underperforming schools established in 2003—only operated a handful of schools in New Orleans. The Orleans Parish School Board operated a portfolio of buildings that had 50 percent more capacity than enrollment. If a master plan for optimizing these facilities, including new construction and major renovations, had been in place prior to the storm, the rebuilding process could have been initiated far more swiftly, and schools could have been a powerful anchoring force for community health and recovery.
2. Establish minimum standards for greener, more resilient school buildings.
A 2015 national independent poll commissioned by USGBC found that 92 percent of Americans believe that the quality of public school buildings should be improved. To do this, we need standards that align policy with contemporary expectations for healthy, green and resilient school buildings. Federal disaster funding, too, requires building standards as part of project formulation.
However, many small rural and large urban districts do not have the time, resources or expertise available to evaluate or establish standards that prioritize community health and resiliency. Among other benefits, standards that include measures to enhance resilience, such as USGBC's resilience-focused tools, can prepare buildings to serve as emergency shelters during future events. Here again, states can help by providing guidance and resources well in advance of any urgent need.
3. Provide technical assistance and advocacy.
Except for limited funds provided by the U.S. Department of Education, there are very few opportunities for school districts to manage federal grants. States can act as collectors of local knowledge and offer training to local officials on developing successful applications for funding. Specifically, states can help by
- Conducting a thorough review of state procurement laws, comparing requirements outlined by the funding source with the options available to municipalities and state agencies. When barriers are discovered, states should negotiate a solution on behalf of the applicants, rather than requiring applicants to manage this on their own.
- Frequently convening a cross-section of applicants to identify common problems and to facilitate sharing of best practices.
- Creating a list of the common barriers to recovery across the portfolio of applicants. This could advance state-level policy and serve as a model for other states.
4. Assist with cash flow.
Many municipalities and local subdivisions are strapped for cash, limiting their flexibility to quickly invest in critical infrastructure, such as schools, in a timely manner. States should have a process to advance or loan money, as well as one to hasten reimbursement of expenses. Since most federal disaster grants are reimbursements, states should consider a revolving loan process for eligible work, to help municipalities that don’t have the cash flow to get started.
When states support municipalities in rebuilding local infrastructure, local efforts are amplified. For schools, this support is especially critical, because they serve as cornerstones of their communities. With states and municipalities working together, schools cannot just return to normalcy, but can emerge more resilient than ever before.