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Feature                                                     Pages 30-37

 
Recovery From a Superstorm
   

A year after Sandy, school district leaders still are picking up the physical and psychological pieces

BY MERRI ROSENBERG

When Superstorm Sandy hit the New York City area last Oct. 29, the devastating impact on a wide swath of shore-hugging communities was unmistakable. Nearly a year later, a “new normal” has taken shape for those overseeing public school systems.

In many places, especially on Long Island and the Jersey shore, entire residential neighborhoods are still under repair or abandoned, and commercial districts are only beginning to re-emerge.

The new normal has particular meaning for public school administrators. While the nature of the particular disaster was shared, the recovery effort they have been leading over the past 12 months has taken different shapes.

Individuals may pack up and move out of storm-devastated areas, but public schools don’t have that option. They hold a public trust and a role in community regeneration unlike any other public institution. The superintendents in the affected localities have pushed hard to bring damaged classroom buildings back on line. They’re doing so even as they’re unsure about how their enrollment will look going forward, all while dealing with traumatized students and staff and ongoing uncertainties about the future tax base to support school operations. Nor have they been relieved from worries about high-stakes tests and new mandates for evaluating personnel.

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Schools in Long Beach, N.Y., suffered structural damage from powerful winds and floodwaters during Superstorm Sandy.

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“We’ve gone through a series of phases,“ says Thomas Rogers, district superintendent of Board of Cooperative Educational Services of Nassau County, one of 37 regional districts in New York that offer member school districts a way to combine resources for services and share costs for greater efficiencies. (See related story.) “In the immediate crisis and emergency recovery, people were displaced and buildings were damaged or destroyed.” That phase lasted about two months, says Rogers, who has played a coordinating role for districts in the disaster recovery.

“Now we’re entering the phase where there are still some people who are displaced, who have not succeeded with the Federal Emergency Management Agency or insurance. Some businesses are in that group. When it persists for over a year, there’s a series of problems. The community that the school district was designed to service doesn’t exist. The real issue is that the tax base is not the same tax base.”

In late May, a group of local superintendents met with Rogers and the Nassau County tax assessor to consider recalculating the property assessments and school taxes in ways that more accurately reflect current values. In New York, schools are largely funded through local property tax. When housing is destroyed or loses value, budgeting assumptions need to be readjusted.

What follows are the stories of leadership in three hard-hit school districts in Long Island and a fourth in New Jersey in the 12-month aftermath of one of the nation’s costliest natural disasters.

LONG BEACH
This community, located about 30 miles east of Manhattan, is alluring. As one approaches from the north and west, the vista opens up to an expanse of low-lying sea and sand, with the unmistakable scent of surf and beach. The houses flanking one of the main roads, leading to the current administrative headquarters of the district and its middle school, look solid and unscathed.

That’s not the complete picture. The low-lying neighborhoods bear window signs that display the poignant message: “Until Everybody Comes Home.” Empty lots, down to slabs, sit next to homes that are under repair or are being fully rebuilt.

The ruins linger in this small city’s public schools. In early June, one elementary school building remained closed. The high school gymnasium was dysfunctional, with warped floors and unusable bleachers. Six classrooms still weren’t accessible at the middle school by the end of the school year.

The closed elementary school had been nearing the end of a major renovation and library addition with a much-awaited ribbon-cutting ceremony on the schedule for the week after the superstorm. Instead, says David Weiss, starting his third year this fall as superintendent in Long Beach, “we had to redo everything. We replaced the furniture, redid the floor, carpeting, sheet rock.” The school was expected to be ready for students this fall.

The severe damage across Long Beach left the district playing an elaborate chess game with many moving parts. The high school absorbed all middle school operations, several elementary schools teamed up for the remainder of 2012-13, and administrators were nomads, touching down wherever they could find work space.

Some displaced students enrolled in other districts, leaving the district down 140 students at the end of the last school year. Weiss contracted with BOCES to do a new demographic study.

One of the superintendent’s principal concerns is that “we’re still trying to get a handle on the issue of the tax base. The issue for us is around state aid. The data that are used are two to three years old, which is not accurate to our current situation. Our costs are current costs. We’re trying to see if anything can be done” through the state education department. It’s a diverse district, economically and ethnically, with 30 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

“We need to get through the tax issue for one to three years and should rebound within one to two years,” says Weiss.

During the school budget vote in May, the board presented a conservative spending plan with a tax increase of 1.02 percent, well under the New York state budget cap and among the lowest on Long Island, which has 125 school districts.

Weiss remains encouraged that families and businesspeople are not fleeing. “Long Beach is still seen as a desirable spot,” he says. “It’s an active community with a large, vibrant population. My prediction is that the community will hold its value. It’s relatively stable, with question marks.”

ISLAND PARK
Rosmarie Bovino, superintendent for the past four years of the Island Park school district, composed of three small islands about an hour’s drive east of Manhattan, still gets emotional when she recalls the devastation she confronted in the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

With 3½ feet of water in her own living room, Bovino relocated for five weeks to a Ramada Inn and then her sister’s home. In the immediate aftermath, she trudged through the district in thigh-high rubber boots, going house to house with staff members to find their students.

“We could only identify 177 children out of about 740,” Bovino recalls. She went to local overnight shelters, leaving 1,000 flyers on cots, to try to reach the displaced students.

Undaunted by a cascading array of challenges — the boilers were under eight feet of water (and weren’t fully restored until mid-February), there was no working kitchen, the gymnasium and auditorium floors flooded, and asbestos surfaced — the board and superintendent were determined to open the schools and bring back the children. By Christmas break, the district was down only 40 students.

“Once we could get generators for heat, we could open,” says Bovino, who worked out of the Nassau BOCES Garden City offices and commuted to her district’s middle school. “The primary job was to meet the children’s instructional needs and get the children back into classroom space.”

Island Park’s five-member board made a public commitment to leading the restoration. “We didn’t want to move our children,” Diana Caracciolo, board vice president, says. “We wanted to keep our children in our district.”

So the district used its damaged but functional middle school to house all of its students. “As soon as we were open, kids came streaming in,” says Bovino. “We said to the community, ‘Your job is to get your homes cleaned. Our job is to bring kids back to school.’’’

The middle school, designed for 900 students, had room, and after the storm there were 724 elementary and middle school students. The challenge was making classroom space work, so, Bovino spent several weekends joining others to remove partitions from small-group rooms used previously by school psychologists and resource teachers to create large classrooms for general use. Island Park’s elementary school was expected to reopen in September.

Once Island Park and other affected districts lost their emergency status as determined by FEMA and the New York State Education Department, just 30 days after Superstorm Sandy hit, and were required to return to full bidding for outside services, frustrating repair delays became common. Bovino expected 80 percent of her district’s renovations to be completed by the first month of school.

Concerns remain about lingering emotional damage as a result of the disruptions and displacement. “We do have lots of trauma,” says Bovino. “The kids are distressed, having all their toys thrown out.”

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Superstorm Sandy buried communities on Long Island under sand and debris, displacing thousands of students and staff members whose schools were damaged, some severely.
Enrollment signs remain troubling. The incoming kindergarten class has 69 students, instead of the expected 100. Bovino wonders whether “maybe young families are not moving into this community because of the sustained damage. The district normally has about 38 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. In the spring, 100 percent qualified.

“We know the taxes collected in April are significantly lower,” she says. “We’re looking to see what will happen in September.”

Still, the community resoundingly voted to support the school budget and a $5.125 million bond in May to repair the schools and public library from storm-related damage. “The community always supports the schools,” says board president Matthew F. Paccione. “The schools are the lifeblood of the community.”

UNION BEACH
Joseph Annibale, superintendent of this New Jersey shore school district lying 45 miles south of New York City, was faced with finding space for his 735 students in grades K-8 when Sandy rendered Union Beach Memorial School, its lone school, unusable, and subsequently the site was commandeered by the National Guard for its use.

Without Internet or phone service, Annibale and his administrative team made 25 signs by hand and placed them around town, requesting parents get in touch with the school district. He worked his contacts to find spots for the K-5 pupils at a local parochial school and moved the 6th through 8th graders to the neighboring Keyport School District. Preschoolers were set up in two classrooms at the adult education center next door to the board of education headquarters.

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Classes resumed at East Elementary School in Long Beach, N.Y., two weeks after Superstorm Sandy made landfall.
By June, the third-year superintendent could officially count 690 students back in class. “The best decision of the board was to return before the school year ended, to boost morale,” he says.

Serious challenges remain in Union Beach. The district is responsible financially as the home school district for any Union Beach student displaced by the storm who enrolled in another community. Annibale awaits guidance from the New Jersey Department of Education about his tuition obligations. By November, he’ll know whether these students are permanently off his enrollment roster.

Worries about the tax base mean “all next year we’ll feel the impact,” Annibale says. One saving grace was having insurance cover the textbooks and computers that were replaced after Sandy. The district also is providing counseling to students and their families, through the district’s psychologist and social workers, as well as outside consultants, through this fall.

EAST ROCKAWAY
In Sandy’s aftermath, Superintendent Roseanne Melucci spent three months working out of her car and a nearby BOCES program site in Merrick, N.Y. All three of East Rockaway’s school buildings were uninhabitable or only partly usable. Enrollment in the 1,300-student district dropped by 485 students. By the end of the school year, 36 still had not returned to the community, located about 25 miles east of Manhattan.

Most students spent six months assigned to inland Baldwin — a major dislocation and expense for a school district that previously only transported students attending special education and nonpublic schools, as required under state law. Neighboring schools in Malverne and Hempstead allowed East Rockaway musicians and athletes to use their performance spaces and athletic fields. By the end of June, East Rockaway was able to hold its high school graduation in a totally rebuilt auditorium.

Reconstruction remains challenging because state regulators and FEMA don’t always agree on needs. “With fixing the high school kitchen, we were told the hood over the stove isn’t up to code,” says Marcy Tannenbaum, director of finance and operations for the East Rockaway schools. “Who’s paying for it? FEMA? The district? And then there’s the question of whether the burden of lowered assessments wouldn’t affect those who are here.”

READ MORE:

Things We Discovered in Sandy’s Aftermath

To make some repairs, the district has turned to contributions, says Melucci. A parent donated tiles for the new auditorium, workers from the local Lowe’s outlet built the stage, and Jericho High School, a neighbor, raised $20,000 to, as the superintendent put it, “bring back music to East Rockaway.”

Melucci, who retired on July 31 after six years as the superintendent and 33 years as an educator, remains concerned about the well-being of the children. “The students had lost so much,” she says. “We had to help these students get through all the loss. There was grief. They lost everything they owned. Some of the parents lost their livelihood.”

Nearly a year later, many questions and uncertainties remain in East Rockaway. The district leadership was buoyant about the community’s decisive May vote of 64 percent in support of the $36.8 million operating budget, carrying a 3.4 percent increase in school taxes. As Tannenbaum says: ”People are not walking away from this community. We’re through with the worst of it.”

Merri Rosenberg is a freelance education writer in Ardsley, N.Y. E-mail: merri.rosenberg@gmail.com

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