For North Carolina schools, politicians must do more than talk about rebuilding post-Florence

October 10, 2018 5:00 am

Long after the presidents, and the governors, and the press conferences cease, and the swollen rivers of our state subside, will North Carolina be there for those students displaced by Hurricane Florence?

Many education leaders, like former state Superintendent Mike Ward, are right to ask the question today, a matter of days after the powerful storm submerged portions of the Carolinas in chest-deep water, driving thousands from their homes and their schools.

Many of our state’s residents will need support in the days, weeks, months and years to come, but perhaps none so much as our schoolchildren, some of whom lost vital classroom time and, indeed, their classrooms in this water-logged catastrophe.

Ward was one of a handful of forward-thinking leaders who convened last week to launch FAST NC, or Florence Aid to Students and Teachers of N.C., an actual, honest-to-god, bipartisan relief drive piloted by past and present school officials like former state Superintendent June Atkinson, current state Superintendent Mark Johnson and State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis.

Atkinson and Johnson agree on very little, but Ward said the Democratic ex-superintendent and Republican current superintendent were eager to join.

Florence, of course, had no political affiliation, and its response should not either. Education leaders struck the right tone last week, and perhaps some of it rubbed off on our notoriously divisive General Assembly.

Lawmakers, thus far, are to be commended for sparing us any hurricane-related hijinks, a low bar if ever there was one. They’ll return next week to talk further about a comprehensive relief package for the state, so there’s time remaining for the kind of partisan potshots that dominated and demeaned a Hurricane Matthew relief session in 2016.

Meanwhile, Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision this week to dispatch $25 million in lottery funds to immediate school repairs – repairs needed to return an estimated 90,000 or so students to shuttered school systems – was a start, but it’s just that, a start.

As Ward points out, our support over the next half-decade may be just as important as the post-disaster response from the cavalry in Raleigh.

Former state Superintendent Mike Ward

“It’s got to be for the long haul,” Ward said this week. “These kids are going to need help for a while.”

And Dr. Ward should know.

After departing as state superintendent, he joined the faculty of the University of Southern Mississippi where his research documented the academic and behavioral struggles over five years for Mississippi students displaced by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Students uprooted by Katrina trailed their peers in the classroom, and were more likely to be suspended or expelled in the years to come.

Ward also talked this week about the “ebb and flow” for such students. Students seemed less likely to face school discipline in the short-term, as governments rallied to fund the relief efforts, but were more likely to struggle in the ensuing years after support tapered off.

Ask our friends in Robeson County if you don’t believe the ex-superintendent and his colleagues in Mississippi.

The rural county saw seven schools and its central office swamped by Matthew two years ago, and the recovery was expected to cost more than $50 million, no small order for the county’s education leaders – who already oversee some of the most economically and academically troubled schools in North Carolina.

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Florence did no favors to their recovery, forcing the school system to delay students’ return to school.

Robeson County’s needs did not end on the day schools reopened following Hurricane Matthew. Likewise, schools in New Bern, Fayetteville and beyond may have a greater battle ahead of them than behind.

They’ll need grit, determination, and, yes, an open pocketbook from the state and federal leaders who promised their best when Florence battered our shores last month.

These words must amount to more than campaign drivel, a momentary morsel tossed to the media. They must be an enduring promise, reflected in dedicated funding for counseling, support services and classroom supplies, long after every single news crew moves on to the next tragedy.

Rep. Craig Horn, a powerful budget leader from Union County, said that lawmakers’ hearts went out to those besieged by the storm. Their wallets should do likewise.

“The needs of kids who were harmed by the storm will outlast the patience of the adults who are working with them,” said Ward this week, quoting one of his favorite authors.

May North Carolina, and its leaders, never lose patience.

To donate to FAST NC and the hurricane relief effort in North Carolina schools, visit here.

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.