Deweyville turns to voters as federal dollars lag

Frustrations continue to pervade school districts across Southeast Texas as federal funding remains tied up in review years after flooding events, which are becoming increasingly more common.

Deweyville ISD turned to voters this year, who approved a $7 million bond issue aimed at alleviating some of the cost the small district was facing while waiting for federal funds to replace an elementary school destroyed in 2016.

“In 2016, delays in addressing federal regulations caused the Toledo Bend Reservoir to be dumped all at once onto Deweyville,” district Superintendent Keith Jones told The Enterprise. “The disaster cost the district about $30 million. The federal government stepped in and offered to cover 75% of the cost of the disaster recovery. Five years later, the district is still waiting for FEMA to make good on that obligation.”

According to Enterprise coverage from the time, FEMA paid a little over $2.1 million for temporary schools to be built.

The story is near commonplace across the region.

Vidor ISD waited almost three years before they thought they came to an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and voted to approve the final plans on replacing Vidor Middle School in 2019, only to have the process delayed for another year.

Hamshire-Fannett ISD, which was denied FEMA funding for extensive flood damage in several tropical events, was given a break when they won a national competition to have a professional locker-room built for them after flooding and overuse during evacuations left them in disrepair.

Hardin-Jefferson ISD just recently received final approval for plans to rebuild Henderson Middle School after years in trailer-type temporary buildings. They also turned to voters to supplement the FEMA funding.

“H-JISD is in a unique situation that may never occur again with the amount of (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funding that we are receiving,” Hardin-Jefferson ISD Communications Director Mandy Fortenberry told The Enterprise in February of 2020, when the board originally voted to put the measure on the May ballot. “In combination with the $25 million from our community and the FEMA funding, we will be able to build just under $70 million in projects.”

The slow-moving process is in part to ensure districts and contractors are adhering to proper federal procurement guidelines for work being completed, FEMA officials previously told The Enterprise.

But in the meantime, schools and communities are left to work, teach and learn in cramped and temporary buildings. The complex requirements can also stretch beyond the understanding of small municipalities and school districts.

A 2017 audit conducted by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General found that despite having “adequate policies, procedures and business practices to account for FEMA Public Assistance grant funds” the district’s policies “did not provide sufficient opportunities for disadvantaged firms to compete for contracts, help ensure reasonable costs or include all required contract provisions.”

As a result, they recommended the district receive additional guidance and “technical assistance and increase monitoring to ensure the district follows all federal grant requirements.”

The district made changes based on the guidance to ensure they were in strict compliance. Still, years after the OIG report, the district has yet to receive funds.

The decision to turn to the voters came earlier this year.

“While standing on the front deck of the portable elementary campus, watching tiny pirates have their Friday dance party in the cement parking lot they have been using as a gym for the last five years, it really hit us that it is the children and teachers who are having to shoulder the burden of the FEMA delays,” Jones said. “There was a big loan payment coming due that would cause us to have to cut even more from the upcoming budget and we couldn’t stand to see them continue to do without things that every first-world student should have in elementary school.”

Jones said officials researched multiple options “and did some math and found a way to take a big chunk of the burden of the FEMA disaster recovery funding delays off the students and teachers and shift the bulk onto timber and energy corporations at a very small cost to the homeowners.”

The bond will only lead to a 2½ cent increase, occurring at a time when tax-rates are declining overall.

“Even with the bond, the tax rate next year should be about 23 cents lower than at the time of the flood,” Jones said, “Deweyville is an amazing, family-centered small town that puts kids first, and they overwhelmingly welcomed the opportunity to support their school with a vote of nearly 4 to 1.”

In Deweyville and other districts, the temporary classrooms have begun to fail after being utilized for years past their intended use. Jones said the small district, which has about 600 students total, has been able to persevere due to the teachers and community.

“I am often in awe at just how secure and happy Deweyville students always seem to be,” said the superintendent, who started the same year as the flooding occurred. “It is almost like magic how just the right teacher can transform a drafty, leaking, trailerable, tin classroom into a warmer and happier place than just about any other place you could imagine. The new facilities will be nice, but it is the people who make up this educational community that make Deweyville such an incredible place to learn.”

Lawmakers have stepped in to chastise FEMA and call for changes in the way schools receive help as similar scenarios play out across the region.

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, told The Enterprise last year that “some changes really kind of need to be made to facilitate making it easier for people to get help without having to jump through all these hoops and for local entities.”

But in the meantime, districts continue to make efforts to receive the funds.

“The bond will get the students into their beautiful new facility and through the next school year, but there are still many struggles ahead,” Jones said, “According to others who have been through this, the FEMA closeouts can last a decade or more. There are schools currently getting requests to send back funds from the 2008 Hurricane Ike disaster.”

Other administrators have described feeling defeated and disheartened by the delays. Jones said it is unacceptable.

“It is hard to imagine that in this era of powerful computers and the instantaneous transfer of information, that the disaster recovery program of the most prosperous and powerful nation in the history of Earth could negatively impact our children for over a decade,” he said.

Beyond a brand new elementary school, high school students will be receiving a renovated high school complete with new, high-efficiency chillers, a state-of-the-art HVAC system and upgraded security measures.

Other bond projects include a revamped athletics complex.

“The only new money in the bond is $250,000 for a playground for the elementary campus, and perhaps a bus or two with whatever is left over,” Jones said. “The bulk of the money is necessary to pay off loans we have taken out to cover FEMA funding delays.”

Construction for the new elementary school already began under the assumption that FEMA funds would reimburse the district, so it will be ready for students when they return to school next year.

“There was no way anyone could have predicted the delays and expenses resulting from multiple subsequent major disasters and COVID-19,” a FAQ about the bond shared with voters said. “When this project started, the ISD believed FEMA would reimburse 75%, and there would be an allocation at the end to cover the difference. Today the state’s budget is drained from COVID-19 spending, Harvey victims are the priority for FEMA resources, and FEMA is so far behind, they are still trying to close out Ike.”

Despite the delays, school officials in Vidor, Sour Lake, Hamshire and Deweyville have credited communities for their support and cooperation throughout the process.

The successful passage of bonds related to repairing storm damage in Hardin-Jefferson and Deweyville are the latest examples of that community support, but Jones said it goes further than that.

“The real story in Deweyville is not the bond, or the beautiful new district, or the inefficiencies at FEMA. There is a bigger story,” he said. “These past five years have proven that a school district is not buildings, a school district is people. Despite the fact that many of our people have lost everything, some twice, they still unselfishly supported the students and teachers when FEMA failed to come through.”

[email protected]

twitter.com/isaacdwindes