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New Jersey Schools Still Waiting for Aid Two Years After Ida

The federal government promised $23 million to assist with recovery efforts after Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on 49 schools and nine colleges and universities across the state. Many are still waiting for those funds.

N.J. principal stands inside gutted theatre of school after Hurricane Ida
John Massaro, principal of Cresskill Middle/High School, stands inside the gutted theater in Sept. 2021 after Hurricane Ida. The district is still waiting for millions in reimbursement.
Andre Malok/TNS
In the two years since Hurricane Ida damaged classrooms and wreaked havoc on an already strained school system, the federal government has promised $23 million for schools in New Jersey to assist with recovery efforts related to the storm, according to the latest federal data.

But, some school districts say they are still waiting for millions more in reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The total cost for all repair projects for schools related to Hurricane Ida is approximately $42 million, said Sgt. Joseph Walsh, a spokesman for the New Jersey state Office of Emergency Management.

After the September 2021 storm, 49 schools and nine colleges and universities filed for more than $83.6 million in public assistance from the federal government to cover losses and damage. However, the number was based on preliminary damage assessments completed by the school and district officials.

The preliminary estimates did not consider reductions for insurance payments, Walsh said.

Englewood Public Schools reported the highest damage estimate at $24.2 million in November 2022. That sum represented approximately 34 percent of the district’s total operating budget for the 2021-2022 academic year.

The total estimated damage wound up being adjusted to $4.4 million, said Cheryl Balletto, the district’s business administrator.

The original estimate was based on the preliminary assessment the district could not reopen John Grieco Elementary School, which sustained major flood damage, Balletto said.

However, once the district had a cleanup and restoration services company come through, it was determined the building wasn’t as damaged as originally estimated. The field house and Winton White Stadium was also less damaged than originally thought, she said.

The district has received all of the $4.4 million it was expecting from FEMA, Balletto said.

Similarly, Elizabeth Public Schools had an initial damage assessment of more than $16 million for the Dr. Orlando Edreira Academy School No. 26 and Dr. Antonia Pantoja School No. 27 school. That was about 3 percent of the large Union County district’s operating budget at the time.

The district later adjusted its total estimated damage to about half that amount.

“The initial estimate was high due in part to the supply chain issues at the time. The damage costs were revised downward as the work was done,” said district spokesman Pat Politano.

The district received a total of $8.8 million in reimbursement, of which $7.36 million was from an insurance carrier, $1.4 million from FEMA, and an additional $900,000 from the federal government through the city of Elizabeth to cover the cost of shuttle buses for students between hotels and schools after the storm, according to Politano.

The district has been fully reimbursed for damage incurred during Ida and is not expecting additional reimbursement.

However, some school districts are still waiting to receive millions from the federal government.

Another $18 million in reimbursement requests are still undergoing final reviews by FEMA, state officials said.

Officials are also awaiting documentation for another $5 million in school repair projects before the districts can be reimbursed, said Walsh, spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Management.

Cresskill Public School District in Bergen County has spent $17 million on repairs due to Hurricane Ida, according to Superintendent Peter Hughes.

The money needed to fix the damage in Cresskill was the equivalent of more than half of the small district’s yearly operating budget. Cresskill Middle/High School was the hardest hit, with widespread flooding affecting nearly every inch of the building and displacing 1,000 students in grades 6 to 12.

Students who were desperate to rejoin their classmates in-person after COVID-19 were forced to resume their coursework on Zoom, to the frustration of some parents. For 5 1/2 months, middle and high school students learned remotely, attending class in-person once a week at a local parochial school.

In mid-February 2022, students were able return to classes in-person from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday after a Presbyterian church in the neighboring town of Northvale let Cresskill Public Schools use its facility for the remainder of the 2021-2022 school year at no cost.

The Cresskill Middle/High School eventually reopened on Sept. 9, 2022, over a year after Hurricane Ida made landfall.

The district has received $716,191 from FEMA for Ida-related damages, according to school officials. Cresskill’s largest application — for approximately $11.2 million to repair the middle and high school building — has not yet been “obligated” by FEMA, the superintendent said.

The obligation of funds, which means the agency commits to paying the money, is step five in FEMA’s complex seven-step reimbursement process.

Under the system, applicants must first pay for the repair work, then submit documents to prove the work was done and get the federal government to reimburse the costs, said Walsh, spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Management.

Because FEMA-eligible recovery projects at schools often take months and sometimes years to complete, there is often a delay in payments, Walsh said.

There has been a delay in Cresskill getting its FEMA reimbursements partly because it had to replace essential equipment that was too costly for the district to purchase on its own, including boilers and a ventilator system that totaled more than $7 million. The district needed insurance money and help from FEMA to make the purchase.

Because the school is located in a flood zone, insurance would cover only up to $2 million of damage, school officials said.

While FEMA policy is to cover 75 percent of remaining costs, Cresskill Public Schools had to front the cost of repairs before seeing a penny of federal funding. It was an insurmountable amount of money for the small school district, which held up the restoration and reopening process.

“It’s no one’s fault, but it opened up a problem that exists right now — if a hurricane or damage comes to a school, there was no mechanism by which you can acquire money,” said then-Superintendent Michael Burke, who retired at the end of 2022.

After attempting multiple sources for borrowing money, the Cressskill voters approved a $21.6 million bond proposal in January 2022 so the district could place orders for the necessary equipment and begin the rebuilding.

“The district opted for short term notes over long term bonds with the assumption of FEMA reimbursements to be processed efficiently,” said Hughes. “However, to date, the district has spent $785,600 in interest financing the repairs.”

Cresskill has had to make budget cuts in order to pay the interest out of its operating fund, according to the superintendent.

“The interest may not even be reimbursable by FEMA,” said Hughes.

While FEMA says $23 million has already been paid to New Jersey educational facilities to assist with recovery efforts related to Hurricane Ida, the state Office of Emergency Management has a slightly different estimate of $19 million.

When asked why the the agencies reported different payouts, a FEMA spokesman said the state and federal government have different systems for calculating total payouts.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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