With the one year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey fast approaching, the most severely impacted Lake Houston area school districts have made significant progress towards recovery.
Yet, there is still much to do before the wounds left by Harvey are healed, district officials said.
Huffman ISD’s expenses for hurricane-related damage total over $2.5 million to-date. However, at approximately $100 million in flood damage, Humble ISD was one of the hardest-hit district in the state.
With the new school year beginning Aug. 200, the school districts finishing up their recovery while trying to protect themselves from future rain events and preparing for Harvey’s impact on their budget.
Humble ISD is also balancing those challenges with providing relief to property owners within their boundaries that flooded.
According to Humble ISD Chief Financial Officer Mike Seale, the cost of storm-related damage didn’t really impact the school district’s 2018-2019 budget, but the effect on property values did.
“Because of Harvey, property values all over the district were pretty much flat, where we normally would grow by about 6 percent,” Seale said. “So, our projected revenue was about $8 million less than it normally would have been.”
Even on a tighter budget, Seale said Humble ISD managed to give teacher raises and hire all necessary staff.
Humble ISD has recouped $33 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance for damages caused by Harvey. This only constitutes 1/3 of the approximately $100 million of damages the district sustained. However, Seale said an additional $60 million in FEMA funds are anticipated during this fiscal year.
“The Texas Legislature has offered assurances that the state will cover costs not reimbursed by insurance and FEMA,” Seale said.
Helping distressed tax payers
Humble ISD officials announced at the Aug. 14 school board meeting that the disbursement of nearly $5 million in property tax reimbursements to district taxpayers is scheduled to begin in September.
“No action will need to be taken by the taxpayers,” said Robert Sitton, Humble ISD board member. “Refund checks will automatically be going out starting in September and finishing in December to the tune of close to $5 million in refunds from Humble ISD.”
The school board voted during the April meeting to authorize Harris County Appraisal District property value reappraisals within district boundaries. The reappraisal was meant to identify reimbursement amounts for taxpayers whose property values may have been lowered due to storm-related damage.
Seale explained at the April meeting that the Harris County Appraisal District would assign a percentage of damage in different Harvey-affected areas and apply that to affected properties within those areas to determine the post-Harvey values and subsequent reimbursement amounts.
“The board voted unanimously several months ago to ask HCAD to do a reappraisal for those that were affected,” Sitton said. “Out of roughly 80,000 homes in Humble ISD, they performed 4,073 reappraisals.”
The refunds will only pertain to the last four months of 2017, from Aug. 23, 2017 to Dec. 31, 2017.
The reappraisal cost the district $122,000. The tax refunds will also be funded by the district, at least initially. Humble ISD officials said that a state-funded reimbursement for the cost of both the reappraisal and tax refunds has been promised by state and local officials.
Kingwood High School students returned to their home campus in March 2017 with most of the campus’ renovations complete.
“Humble ISD’s strong financial position allowed the district to make repairs immediately, provide additional student bus transportation while Kingwood High School was being restored, and re-open Kingwood High School within seven months,” Seale said.
Now entering the 2018-2019 school year, assistant superintendent of high schools Trey Kraemer anticipates total campus functionality.
“The only thing we’re waiting on right now is the swimming pool because we found some additional issues with that,” Kraemer said. “When the school opens on the Aug. 20, we believe from a construction perspective, outside of a few punch list items, we’ll be totally, fully-functional.”
Construction is not complete on the new Administration Building and the Instructional Support Center, but the work has progressed to a point where staff could move in, according to Mount.
Now the district is just waiting for federal reimbursments.
The restoration of Kingwood High School has been a priority focus for FEMA due to the project’s magnitude, Seale explained; however Humble ISD officials were surprised earlier this year when they were denied entrance into the FEMA Public Assistance Alternative Procedures pilot program. Acceptance into the pilot program would have expedited Humble ISD’s collection of federal disaster relief.
“We got in to the expedited process believing, and the people at FEMA we were talking to believed, that we would qualify,” Seale said. “Someone up the line in FEMA interpreted the regulations that would allow us to use that process to say we could only use that process if we had not started remediating our building.”
Humble ISD was already three to four months into the remediation process.
“We moved quickly because we believed it was most important to get students back in school as soon as possible and not delay,” said Jamie Mount, Humble ISD public communications director.
Harvey interrupted the district’s timeline to open the new Administration Building, which will house the new Welcome Center and district retail store. Staff were finally able to begin moving into the building on Monday, Aug. 13.
Staff began moving into the Instructional Support Center on Thursday, Aug. 9.
Humble ISD recently sold $125 million in bonds for the first batch of projects included in the $575 million bond referendum passed by voters on May 5.
One of the projects is relocating the site of the northern agricultural barn, which has flooded several times, including during Harvey. At the Aug. 14 meeting, the school board approved the superintendent to negotiate the purchase of a nearly 7-acre plot of land at Ford Road and Mills Branch Drive in Porter on which the district plans to construct the new Kingwood ag barn.
Restoring Huffman ISD
Huffman ISD recently announced that all students within the district will receive free school breakfasts and lunches throughout the 2018-2019 school year.
The ability to offer this service is directly related to the number of students declared homeless due to Harvey, explained Tim Brittain, CFO of Huffman ISD.
“Anybody who was displaced because of Hurricane Harvey was considered homeless this year, so that bumped-up our Free and Reduced Lunch percentage numbers, which qualified us for the free lunches and breakfasts for all students,” Brittain said.
District officials estimate 60 percent of the homes within district boundaries were flooded or damaged by Harvey. Brittain expects to see an impact on the district’s taxable property values.
“We don’t have those final numbers yet, but we suspect there will be an impact on the houses that were damaged,” Brittain said. “We’re fortunate because our enrollment has increased in the past year, which helps even-out some of that with our budget, so we’re not hit too hard.”
Since Huffman ISD is having to pay for Harvey-related repairs out of the fund balance until FEMA provides reimbursement, Brittain said the district is budgeting conservatively and being cautious with district staffing.
“We’re being very conservative with what we’re doing right now to try to save money and be able to restore that fund balance while we’re waiting on FEMA to reimburse us for those costs,” Brittain said.
So far, Huffman ISD had over $2.5 million worth of damage in the district.
The district had to repair Huffman Middle School and replace the flooring in two gymnasiums immediately to temper any delays on the start of school after Harvey.
“We had to pay out of fund balance to do those repairs in order to get those kids back in the building and we did that within a week or so after,” Brittain said. “We were only delayed about a week for school starting.”
Huffman ISD is still awaiting FEMA reimbursement for those projects, which account for nearly $1.5 million of the damage expenses, according to Brittain.
The district is holding off on repairs to other hurricane-damaged facilities due to ongoing negotiations with FEMA over whether to reconstruct, mitigate or move the facilities, which are in a floodplain, explained Brittain.
The facilities that have yet to be built back include the transportation building, various maintenance facilities that store equipment, agricultural classrooms and agricultural shop, middle school portable building and middle school field house.
“We haven’t made a decision yet on how we’re going to build those buildings back,” Brittain said. “We’ve been in negotiations with FEMA on what they’ll fund as far as restoring the buildings, or mitigating, or moving them to a location out of the floodplain. So, the costs there haven’t really affected us, but we just don’t have access to those buildings.”
The district’s buses are currently operating out of a temporary location near the old Huffman ISD stadium. Classes that would have utilized the agricultural and portable classrooms were moved into middle school classrooms that were added during a renovation right before Harvey.
Huffman ISD officials are working with FEMA and industry professionals to determine the best course of action for the facilities within a floodplain. The district intends to request a 6-month time extension from Aug. 25, which is FEMA’s deadline for filing insurance claims of loss due to Hurricane Harvey.
“Aug. 25, when the disaster was declared, is when we have to file for an extension if we’re not done with those plans at that time,” Brittain said. “Coming up on the one-year anniversary of Harvey, we are requesting a time extension to give us another 6 months, probably, to make those final decisions and finalize that funding.”