Local School Districts Plead for Federal Help

Houston-area school districts are pleading with lawmakers in Washington to begin paying-off on a promise to reimburse them for taking in thousands of Katrina and Rita evacuee students. Most of those districts have seen little or no federal money despite millions of dollars in expenses.

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At last count, local schools had taken in around 22,000 evacuee students, with many of those new faces served by the Houston School District. So far, HISD has welcomed more than 7500 students and is spending close to $200,000 a day to educate them. Despite the increased burden, HISD has seen virtually no federal reimbursement and expects the total burden to hit $35 million before the end of the school year. Karen Soehnge is HISD's Chief Academic Officer and says that's a lot of money to have to make up. "If in fact this spring we don't get additional help from the federal government, that $35 million, we'll have to a address that in our budget development for next year and it will have, and could have, a profound effect," she says.

The same is true in Pasadena, where the school district has taken-in almost 1,000 evacuee students at a cost of between $500,000 and $1 million and so far has seen no federal reimbursement. Superintendent Dr. Rick Schneider says the extra financial burden could lead to a reduction in services. "We could be talking something as drastic as even reduction in forces because substancial amounts of money would be needed in order to balance the budget, millions and millions of dollars. So we're very dependent on the federal leadership to answer our call," he says.

One of those leaders is Houston Congressman Gene Green, who has led an effort in Washington to get federal money to local schools who have accepted evacuee students. The House is currently considering a supplemental appropriations bill that would address the reimbursement, something Green says should have happened months ago. "Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has committed to members of Congress and even in the state of Texas the school districts, that they would be paid for those students and here we are in December and it's been since September that Houston and Harris County opened their doors to our neighbors, but it's a federal responsibility to help our districts," he says.

FEMA disaster relief funds can be used to pay some educational costs, but on a restricted basis. Allowable FEMA reimbursements include costs for portable classrooms and school transportation costs.

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