- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Putting the Federal Emergency Management Agency in charge of rebuilding and reopening schools on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina was a critical mistake, congressional Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee said yesterday.

“Now we realize FEMA has to step aside,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, Minnesota Democrat.

The Democrats issued a report asserting that eight months after the storm hit the region, its schools remain in crisis. The lawmakers called for the creation of an education-recovery czar to oversee the reopening of Gulf Coast schools and colleges.

“FEMA is operating out of a very old playbook” and deserves a large heap of the blame for slowing down rebuilding efforts with an extra layer of bureaucracy, said Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

“We heard repeatedly that FEMA gave out contradictory guidance, lacked one single point of contact for schools and colleges, and displayed near-total unwillingness to give local educators the flexibility they need to rebuild and reopen their schools quickly and efficiently,” Mr. Miller said. “The people of New Orleans and the Gulf states, they deserve better than that. FEMA is just the wrong agency at the wrong time.”

In the New Orleans public school system, 20 of the 130 schools are open.

The schools that are open are crowded, and students must take classes in cramped trailers. School officials are being forced to lay off teachers and borrow money as they wait for payments from the federal government. Some are facing bankruptcy.

Colleges are in an equally difficult position, the report says. Several schools were destroyed, and thousands of students were left without a learning institution or a place to live in.

Democrats argued that adequately funding schools so they can rehire teachers and faculty will stimulate the economy as students return. The report blamed President Bush for assigning FEMA to handle recovery efforts at schools in Louisiana and Mississippi. Democrats say the Department of Education should assume the rebuilding role and ensure that schools in the region get more funding.

Less than 2 percent of the $87 billion in federal money sent to the Gulf Coast was used for education, the Democrats said.

Mr. Miller said it would cost several billion dollars to properly rebuild schools.

“It’s expensive, but it has to be done. There really is no alternative,” he said. “We have made a decision as a nation that we are going to rebuild and recover this area. Education is critical to that mission. It can’t be done without it.”

Meanwhile, school officials from the Gulf Coast testified before the committee, and members heard many of the same complaints.

Officials testified that federal money has been slow to trickle in because of red tape at the state level.

“Today’s hearing has highlighted the fact that many local schools have not received one penny in the federal aid we have approved. This is unacceptable,” said Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., Louisiana Republican.

Father William F. Maestri, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, told the committee to consider public-private school partnerships to make the transition easier.

“The old divisions that have too long divided us must be laid aside so we can move forward together,” he said.



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