Florida district leader pleads for storm recovery funds
Bay County Superintendent Bill Husfelt said partisan politics are blocking the Panhandle school system — devastated by Hurricane Michael in October — from getting the help it needs.
UPDATE: April 13, 2019: Officials are responding to Bay District Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt’s emotional request for hurricane recovery funds, but they aren’t the high-level lawmakers that the district leader said have the power to get funds to the hurricane-ravaged region.
“Hearing Superintendent Husfelt’s pleas yesterday were heartbreaking and his pleas are ones that ripple throughout the entire area," Jimmy Patrons, Florida’s chief financial officer said in a statement. "It’s infuriating that Congress went on a two-week vacation while communities are still trying to rebuild and more people could lose their jobs. Congress needs to pass desperately needed funding immediately.”
On Thursday, Husfelt pleaded with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, state lawmakers and leaders in Congress for financial relief to help the Panhandle district recover from Hurricane Michael.
Joined by school board members, county commissioners, a charter school leader and the president of the local teachers’ association, Husfelt said state legislators and members of Congress have let partisan politics get in the way of providing funds, and that without an additional $24.8 million for the 2019-20 school year, the district will likely have to lay off more than 500 employees.
“Today’s issues we face in isolation. It almost seems like somehow we caused the storm ourselves,” Husfelt said, adding that while the region received some help immediately after the storm, the community now feels forgotten. “Recovery assistance used to be apolitical. Unfortunately, there’s no appetite in Tallahassee or [Washington] to do anything more to help us.”
The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.
The funds, added school board Chairman Steve Moss, are not to rebuild or repair schools, but instead for operations, salaries, utilities and “gas in our buses.” The $24.8 million would be in addition to a bill pending in the state Senate that would keep the district — and those in eight other counties — from losing state funds, because students have not returned to school since the early October storm.
The district, Husfelt said, has a budget shortfall of $37 million and still has $250 million worth of repairs to schools “with no loan program” coming from the state or federal level. The district has issued a hiring freeze and stopped purchase orders to try to save money, he said.
On the same day as Husfelt’s press conference, U.S. Senate Republicans — Marco Rubio and Rick Scott from Florida, and Johnny Isakson and David Perdue from Georgia — criticized Senate Democrats in Congress for not advancing a disaster relief package that would have included $162 million for operations in schools and higher education institutions in multiple disaster-affected areas as well as for schools receiving students displaced by storms. Democrats argue the legislation doesn’t do enough to provide relief to Puerto Rico, hit by both Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017.
A Category 4 hurricane, the storm caused damage to every school in the district, including charter schools. Principals and other district officials interviewed last month reported high stress levels among students and families, as well as frequent mobility among families still in temporary living situations.
Husfelt and the other county leaders were bold in their accusations that the district’s somewhat rural location has contributed to the lack of action on the part of the state legislature and Congress.
“I get frustrated because I honestly think if we lived in Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach County, I think we’d have the funds that we need,” Moss said, adding that the state has a “track record” of coming to the rescue of other districts after major storms, such as Hurricanes Irma, Andrew and Charlie.
Husfelt added that within weeks after Hurricane Harvey in Texas in 2017, Trump signed a relief package amounting to roughly $22 billion. And about three months after Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, President Barack Obama signed a bill providing $50 billion in aid.
The superintendent stood next to a poster that, in addition to DeSantis, showed the faces and contact information of others that have influence over the district receiving support. The other five are President Donald Trump, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Florida Senate President Bill Galvano and Florida House Speaker José Oliva.
After the Florida legislature passed a medical marijuana bill early in the session, Husfelt said he thought a storm relief package would be the next priority. But now, with two weeks left in the session, he said he was starting to give up, but still thought DeSantis could push something through. “I do have hope,” he said, “that Tallahassee can still save the day.”
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