The costs of Hurricane Michael are just beginning to be understood by local governing bodies.
One positive number, at least for Gulf District Schools, turns out to be enrollment.
Despite a “soft” opening to start last month, enrollment in the four public schools is currently at roughly 93 percent of state projections of just over 1,900 students for the current school year.
Given that each full-time equivalent student carries with them roughly $4,000 in state funding, strong enrollment numbers are a positive to mitigate other hurricane-related losses.
“They are not all the same kids we had before,” noted Martha Weimorts, Assistant Superintendent for Special Services. “Some have come from Bay County and we lost some students who were displaced.”
The first of two state mandated enrollment counts was due to be taken the week of Hurricane Michael; the next will come in February.
By that time, school officials hope, they will also have a clearer view of what state lawmakers may provide in the way of relief for counties, and school districts, heavily impacted by Michael.
“We know our ad valorem is going to drop and we will be in trouble if the Legislature does not protect us,” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton.
Financial officer Sissy Worley said it was simply too early to discern Michael’s impacts to the budget.
“We hope we are held harmless (by the Legislature) for the storm,” Worley said. “This year we will be fine. The next year is when we will have challenges.
“But our first goal, as always, is to educate the kids and keep them safe.”
As for the coming fiscal year, Property Appraiser Mitch Burke and his staff have not even completed their photography of the entire county needed to assess damages to properties.
The tax roll does not have to be certified until July and Worley said it will be months before the local picture is filled in.
Early estimates out of the county’s offices are a loss of 20 percent in county property values; Worley said she would not be surprised if the figure is not 30 percent or more.
And as enrollment has rebounded since the storm, the faculty numbers have also held; just one district teacher has yet to return to the job due to a lack of available housing.
One other resigned due to the same circumstances.
The district was to an extent nudged by state officials, including the governor, to open schools has soon as possible, maybe a bit earlier than Norton and staff would have preferred.
They have had to juggle with classroom space at each junior/senior high school, but from the re-opening of schools, enrollment indicated the need to get the schools up and running was pressing.
“It’s taken a lot to get our schools open,” Norton said. “I think we’ve done a yeoman’s job for the community in doing so.”
And despite more than two weeks of closure after the hurricane, district officials do not believe they will have to extend the school year’s schedule beyond the late May dates for high school graduations.
“Right now I don’t envision us going beyond the school calendar,” Norton said.
Though no formal word has come from the Department of Education, district officials believe they will be in compliance provided the current calendar is followed.
“We have calculated every minute of instructional time and we will not be out of compliance,” said Lori Price, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction.
The Christmas break will adhere to that calendar: after a half-day Dec. 20, schools will close for the break, with teachers returning Jan. 4 and students Jan. 8.
Meanwhile, the district is totaling up damage costs and following the necessary process with the insurance carrier.
The School Board Tuesday approved spending more than $30,000 on repairs to the cooling towers at the junior/senior high schools, though both towers may have to be replaced sooner than hoped.
In addition, the district sustained some damage to every school, with the two junior/senior high schools sustaining the most damage.
Another significant claim will be the Port St. Joe track, which, as Norton put it, was “crushed” during the time post-storm when it was the headquarters for the law enforcement presence in the county.
The School Board decided to schedule a one-hour workshop prior to its January regular meeting to discuss and assess damages to school infrastructure and a path forward on recompense.