Public Schools Scramble to Accommodate Hurricane Maria Evacuees, Hoping Money Will Follow

24 June 2018

Thirty-three days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, Gloria Irizarry and her family moved to Connecticut.

Irizarry loved her job as a grade school teacher at John F. Kennedy School in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico. But a week following the hurricane, the elementary school building was full of refugees, and the teachers waited for instructions from the local board of education. Classes ultimately wouldn’t resume until January 2018, three-and-a-half months after Maria struck the island.

The Irizarrys are among the more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans who packed up what was left of their lives and moved to the states in the six months following Hurricane Maria, according to estimates by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. The waves of newcomers have put intense pressure on cash-strapped school districts – even forcing the hand of both state and federal governments, which eventually pledged additional funding. Tens of millions will be spent over and above initial 2017-18 school budgets – but it could take years for those dollars to find their way into school coffers, and in the meantime, schools are doing more with less.

For Irizarry, the decision was agonizing but necessary. She interviewed earlier in 2017 for a job at New Haven Public Schools, but initially opted not to leave her lifelong home in Puerto Rico. Following Hurricane Maria, she reached out again to the New Haven Board of Education to see if they would still offer her a position.

In order to get cellular service for another round of interviews, Irizarry travelled 60 miles to San Juan over virtually impassable roads. Cell coverage was sparse, with 95.2% of Puerto Rico’s cellphone towers nonfunctional the day after the storm, according to reports from the Federal Communications Commission. She largely interviewed via text message – and even those would take several minutes to go through, if at all.

The dramatic conditions, including limited communication with the outside world, intermittent access to electricity and water for weeks (as of yesterday, 5% of Puerto Ricans did not have access to electricity), and the school closures, led many to make the choice to leave their homes and relocate to the mainland US.

“I had everything back in Puerto Rico, I had my house, my car, my job,” Irizarry said. But after Hurricane Maria, “people in the neighborhood were not the same. For me, it was a totally different Puerto Rico than the one I used to know.”

And now, Irizarry plans to stay in New Haven. “It’s better than being in Puerto Rico,” she said.

One of the first stops that most migrating families make in their new communities is the school district’s main office, to enroll their children in the public educational system, said Betty Medina Lichtenstein, executive director of Enlace de Familias Resource Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

So many students left Puerto Rico that the island’s Departmento de Educacion announced on 5 April that a quarter of schools will close their doors in 2018-2019. Enrollment dropped by more than 38,700 students since last May. Given those statistics, it shouldn’t be surprising that in the immediate months following the hurricane, many mainland US school districts enrolled hundreds of new students practically overnight to get them back into a classroom as soon as possible – a human migration that continues to this day.

How the most affected public school districts are handling the influx of students, and how their cash needs might impact both local and state governments varies greatly across the country. In financially troubled states like Connecticut and New Jersey, yet another increased expenditure could further strain budgets and credit ratings – which ultimately affect a state’s cost of borrowing capital.

But so far, some state officials are instead focusing on the potential positives of the migration. They hope that the evacuees and their new communities can achieve a mutually beneficial relationship – since a jolt of new spenders and taxpayers could be just what some regions need to stimulate an economic recovery.

‘A whole new school of kids’

In most cases, since Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, students didn’t begin to relocate until after many school districts set their annual budgets, and after the respective “count day.” On count day, districts tally the headcount numbers that are used to determine state aid, which is then distributed on a per-pupil basis.

When students arrive in large numbers mid-year, it can leave the districts “scrambling for resources,” said Suzanne Finnegan, chief credit officer at Build America Mutual, a bond insurance company.

“Because of the timing of the storm, these kids didn’t get picked up [by Count Day stats] at all,” said Ben Barnes, Connecticut’s secretary of the Office of Policy and Management. “The surge of students arrived after the deadline.”

Districts needed to respond, and quickly, to the swell of new students.

Many evacuees headed to areas where they had family members or those with existing Puerto Rican populations. The displaced students are primarily concentrated in Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, according to Hunter College data and Debtwire Investigations findings. Debtwire Investigations conducted 60-plus interviews encompassing more than 50 school districts in ten states, as well as with the respective state education departments which provided their counts for displaced students.

Florida received the highest absolute number of new student enrollments, at 12,822 for a 0.45% increase to its initial overall 2017-2018 student population, according to the Florida Department of Education. Although the high-level figure doesn’t appear very disruptive, some districts in the state were disproportionately affected, with increases of up to 5% each.

Many schools in the Sunshine State are accustomed to changing enrollment after hurricane season, said Lorena Hitchcock, spokesperson for Orange County Public Schools, which includes Orlando.

Waterbury, a Connecticut city whose student population has increased about 1.3% with arrivals from Puerto Rico, has hired new teachers and is starting capital development plans due to the evacuees and an overall growth trend that preceded the hurricane, said Robert Brenker, interim COO of Waterbury Public Schools.

The New Haven district where Irizarry now teaches has received at least 186 students from Puerto Rico, representing about 1% of its official 2017-2018 student population, according to the region’s data.

“We are planning for 1,000 of these kids to trickle in, and we have (559 as of March 12), and this is just since the actual hurricane,” said Carlos Garcia, spokesperson for Rochester City School District. “That’s literally a whole new school of kids who have come into our district.”

In western Massachusetts, between nine and 12 families are still arriving from Puerto Rico each week, Lichtenstein said in April. In the first weeks after the storm, more than 100 families were arriving weekly, and the migration rate hit a peak of 144 families one week in November, she said.STEM Middle Academy students Miguel Torres and Ashanty Rosario arrived in Springfield, Mass. from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria and received an invitation to the Massachusetts State House. Courtesy Springfield Public Schools.

Because of the budget cycle, most districts didn’t receive additional funding as soon as the students relocated. In Newark, New Jersey, which received 168 hurricane-displaced students as of 4 April, the district simply accommodated the new students using existing resources, said Tracy Munford, spokesperson for Newark Public Schools.

Ditto in Massachusetts. “It would have been great if some funds did accompany students as they trickled into our district, but the way our formula is with the state, our per pupil allocation runs two years behind,” said Azell Cavaan, chief communications officer for Springfield Public Schools, in Springfield, Massachusetts.

But if one thing is certain, it’s that the statistics are nearly impossible to track accurately in aggregate. At Camden Public Schools in New Jersey, at least 200 students relocated from Puerto Rico – but that’s just the number of students who specifically identified themselves, said Sandra Cintron, project manager of human services at Camden City School District. Some fly under the radar in various ways – including by stopping at another mainland district ahead of enrolling in Camden – complicating the task of tracking the total, she said.

Furthermore, for many families, residence is a fluid situation. Some students move back and forth numerous times between the island and the mainland, Garcia said.

The lack of reliable numbers will also infect the planning for the next school year, Barnes said. “It’s not even clear that all the kids who arrived in fall of 2017 and early 2018 will necessarily still be there.”

Communities in western Massachusetts are planning for the families to stay – and for more to come, said Lichtenstein.

That’s because the economic factors pushing Puerto Ricans off the island are piling up, compounding the fallout from the physical hurricane destruction. In May 2017, Puerto Rico’s government was insolvent and entered Title III, a bankruptcy-like restructuring process. Two months later its main power provider, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, filed its own Title III insolvency petition. Both remain mired in court as creditors fight one another and the US government for their piece of the pie. Even now, electricity still has not been completely restored to all residents, and those who do have power continue to suffer occasional blackouts.

Math problems

In the best of circumstances, most public school district budgets are stretched. Just ask the teachers. A nationally representative survey of teachers conducted by NPR and Ipsos in April found that more than 86% have purchased school supplies with their own money – while 59% of teachers have worked a second job to make ends meet.

The aftermath of Hurricane Maria has heightened the fiscal predicament for some of the districts disproportionately affected, said Steve Harper, co-founder of BondPlanner, a software program that helps school districts manage planning and costs of construction.

“Up and down the east coast, a lot of schools are stretched to capacity, with aging infrastructure and an unexpected group of people displaced and entering the school system from Puerto Rico or other areas of the world, which has been a big strain on school infrastructure,” Harper said.

“We were already stressed in some of the areas with class sizes and with bilingual and special education services,” said Brenker, of the Waterbury, Connecticut district. “We already have portable space in use. We don’t have anywhere to build.”

Public school funding primarily comes from three sources. Nationally, about 47% is provided by state governments, with federal funding representing about 8% and the remainder coming from local taxation, according to estimates by Moody’s Investors Service.

School districts experiencing permanent growth will eventually need to raise money at the local level to address capacity issues, but in most cases that won’t take place for another three-to-five years since it takes time to determine and then plan for the specific needs, said Matt Fabian, partner at Municipal Market Analytics, an independent research service focused on the municipal market. And since many school districts need to turn to voters for approval to issue school bonds – effectively, an increase in property taxes – that process can be fraught, he said.

In the meantime, emergency federal funding is ostensibly on the way. In February, Congress allocated $2.7bn to assist K-12 and higher education students impacted by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. The promised federal reimbursement to school districts will include up to $9,000 per pupil for children who are English Language Learners, up to $10,000 for students with disabilities and up to $8,500 for all other students.

However, state officials don’t know when the federal government will actually provide the funds, said Yazbak, the Connecticut DOE spokesperson. The US DOE declined to comment for this story.

“In the long-term, [the districts will] have the financial resources to address these challenges. In the short-term, there are hurdles to overcome,” Robert Amodeo, head of municipals at Western Asset Management.

Enter the state governments. “It could be a real burden for some districts until the states recognize the need to get more state aid to these districts,” said Howard Cure, director of municipal research at Evercore Wealth Management.

Some states have already taken action. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (R) announced 9 April the state would provide an additional $15m in school funding to accommodate the students that migrated from Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands following the hurricanes.

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott (R), who is campaigning for a seat in the US Senate, has made moves to provide aid to the districts that need it most. Scott has made several visits to Puerto Rico as part of relief efforts, and he issued an executive order to create evacuee centers to help Puerto Ricans integrate more easily. The governor’s office estimates that 230,000 Puerto Ricans will settle in Florida by the end of 2018, which could translate into political support for Scott’s campaign, Cure pointed out.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, the state has already disbursed $3.8m to schools specifically related to supporting hurricane evacuees, and the state’s DOE estimates that local governments will also ultimately allocate $10m from others parts of their budgets in fiscal 2018 to accommodate the displaced students. Both amounts are above and beyond the initial 2018 budget plans.

States had already been under mounting pressure to increase K-12 education funding, especially since the Great Recession, according to Moody’s Investors Service. Although state funding for K-12 has increased over the last decade, it hasn’t kept pace with inflation as states direct money toward other policy priorities like underfunded pensions, the ratings agency said in a June 4 report.

And many affected districts are not counting on state aid just yet. Fiscally stressed New Jersey – facing ballooning pension expenses and flat revenue – hasn’t announced any similar packages. The state’s 31% pension funding ratio makes it the second-worst nationwide, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, and budget documents show that it hasn’t made a full payment to its pension system in decades. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s property taxes are among the highest in the country, so if districts need to raise revenue or issue debt, they could face strong political headwinds, Fabian said.

For Connecticut, the $3.8m that the state ponied up is negligible in the context of its initial FY18 education budget of $4.24bn, Barnes said. But the state’s strained finances make every additional penny not only hard to find, but potentially controversial.

Connecticut lawmakers heaved a budget over the finish line last October, more than three months after the July 1 start of fiscal 2018, following months of legislative fighting to close a projected $5bn two-year deficit.

But after the budget passed, Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings downgraded Connecticut’s ratings, to ‘A’ from ‘A+’, making it the third-lowest rated state after Illinois and New Jersey. That’s largely because embedded in the budget was a bailout for Connecticut’s capital city, Hartford, totaling $80m in aid over the two-year budget cycle and additional $36m a year over 20 years ($754m) to cover the city’s debt service payments.

Now, besides the extra educational spending, the state is also planning to allot around $200,000 to low-income housing projects in fiscal 2018, as part of its work to accommodate displaced Puerto Ricans, Barnes said.

“We have a deficit, so our deficit is now $200,000 higher [as a result of the housing spend] but we think given its relatively low cost, and the importance, we’re comfortable making those commitments,” Barnes said.

Underlying Connecticut’s support for the hurricane victims is a wager that the new residents could help the state claw its way out of the ongoing fiscal crisis. The state’s population essentially flattened over the last decade – with 3.58m residents in 2017 compared with 3.57m recorded in the 2010 census – and new residents could ultimately provide a boost to the state’s economy, Barnes said.

“We need more population, more workers and consumers and people coming to Connecticut,” Barnes said. “Connecticut has a flat population, and that’s one of the contributing factors to the lack of vigor in our economic recovery over the past decade. I actually think to the extent Puerto Ricans want to come to Connecticut – it’s economically advantageous to us. ”

Howard Cure and Robert Amodeo, the municipal credit analysts, are inclined to agree. Immigration could have positive effects on districts that have experienced stagnant or declining enrollment, Cure said. And the political dynamics—as a US territory, Puerto Ricans who relocate to the mainland have the right to vote in local elections—could bring momentum to ensuring that aid is delivered, he added.

There is data to back up this expectation. David Card, professor of economics at Berkeley, has completed extensive research on the effects of immigration on the labor market, and his findings show that immigration inflows can be positive for state and local economies.

“In the long run, I suspect it will be very good for these cities, but whether that’s in one or two years, or ten years from now, we really don’t know,” Card said.

Historically and now, Puerto Ricans have relocated to areas in the mainland US where an active Puerto Rican community exists, which is in line with other historical patterns such as those from the Middle East moving to Detroit suburbs or Cubans settling in Miami, Card said.

“For the most part, it’s a net positive for the states that are receiving Puerto Ricans. It will add to the economic growth where they’re residing,” Fabian added. “They’ll buy things and pay rent and taxes, get jobs, which all add to the local economy.” And many Puerto Ricans have the ability to seamlessly slide into the economy: they already have citizenship and many are bilingual.

Still, regions experiencing too-rapid population growth need to be cautious, since it could push schools to a point where they have to proactively issue school bonds to finance expansions, said Fabian, citing Orlando as a fast-growth region that could face such a risk.

Furthermore, districts could come under increased credit ratings pressure if the incoming students lag their peers academically, in part because standardized test results play a role in state aid calculations and oversight status, according to a municipal bond investor focused on K-12 education. As such, test results also impact perception and therefore, over the longer term, actual enrollment, the investor said.

One piece of good news for districts and states – so far at least – is that the $3.8 trillion municipal bond market remains wide open for business despite the historic dislocation to infrastructure and the $265bn in US damages collectively caused by Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey last year. Muni investors, facing a shortage of supply and with total returns constrained in the rising interest rate environment, have largely shrugged off the increased risk posed by school funding challenges to some issuers.

“The market is hard-pressed to [be concerned about] about anything right now, so this is unlikely to result in ratings changes, much less spread changes – the market is so credit insensitive,” Fabian said.

At the same time, the instability of the evacuee enrollment numbers means that the true credit impact on the muni market at large remains to be seen, said Amodeo.Students at Alfred G. Montessori Magnet School in Springfield, Mass. show their support for Puerto Rican evacuees. Courtesy Springfield Public Schools.

Beneath the surface

School districts dealing with a sudden student influx – especially one spurred by a tragic event – don’t just need money for books and desks and a few additional teachers. They also need resources to help students cope with the extraordinary trauma.

Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico’s economic crisis left the island physically devastated, and its residents similarly shattered. What looms, with the continued migration, is a mental health crisis. If evacuees haven’t already experienced it already, it will manifest at some point, said Lichtenstein, who works at the family resource center in Holyoke.

Tending to the students’ emotional needs is imperative, since without that, efforts in the classroom could be futile.

Hiring additional language teachers for English as a Second Language (ESL), and mental health and trauma counselors was the biggest unexpected cost, said Yazbak, the Connecticut State Department of Education spokesperson.

Often, a lack of information about the students and their educational histories creates challenges right out of the gate. Some families leave key documents behind when they flee, and in other cases students who have relocated to live with relatives arrive at school with guardians who may not know the pertinent information, said Cavaan, the Springfield, Massachusetts communications director.

School districts have partnered with local agencies to help the families’ transition: connecting them with services for employment, housing, immunizations, driver’s licenses, voter registration, professional licensing, health screenings, disaster relief, banking, and food and clothing vouchers. Community partners nationwide helped provide clothing, including winter clothes to ensure warmth during the frigid Northeastern winter. Those organizations include Enlace de Familias in Holyoke and Catholic Charities, which has outposts nationwide, including Buffalo and Camden.

Some state education departments – including those in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, and Pennsylvania – have provided guidance to local school districts on strategies for easing the transition. This involves hiring displaced teachers from Puerto Rico like Gloria Irizarry, waiving rules for maximum class sizes, and helping graduating high school juniors and seniors to obtain diplomas from their original Puerto Rican schools if they prefer.

It also includes tips on efficiently enrolling and tracking students, especially those who may qualify for McKinney-Vento accommodations. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law first passed in 1987, among other things provides funding to facilitate school enrollment for homeless kids, including migratory students who have relocated due to a loss of housing. The federal government disbursed $77m in McKinney-Vento funding in 2017, according to the National Center for Homeless Education, which supports the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness.

“My heart breaks for the ones who leave. It impacts them mentally, and it’s very difficult to get back up to speed and embrace your academics,” said Camden’s Cintron. “We’re seeing situations where there are multiple families staying in one residence and students don’t have their own space.Stakeholders within Buffalo Public Schools develop an action plan to determine needs for incoming Puerto Rican students. Courtesy Buffalo Public Schools.

“If your basic needs aren’t met, then that’s what your mind is focused on. Learning can begin only once you’re secure,” said Cintron.

“Our students have come with very similar experiences to refugee populations. The only thing they’d come with is the clothes on their back,” said Nadia Nashir, assistant superintendent of multilingual education at Buffalo Public Schools, where nearly 500 students from Puerto Rico relocated.

“We’re making sure we take care of all of their needs once they come in and encouraging them to stay at least until the end of the year,” Garcia said. “Every minute in the classroom matters. We’re hoping these children will stay with us, long-range and through graduation.”

Lessons from Katrina

Storms plunder the US coast and Caribbean islands every year. The post-Maria population reshuffling has many precedents, most recently in the form of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Katrina earned the distinction of costliest US storm on record, with estimated damages totaling $161bn, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Hurricane Maria damages are estimated to cost $90bn, making it the third costliest storm of all time, according to NOAA.)

Tens of thousands of students scattered by Katrina’s winds found their way to Texas in 2005. The Lone Star State’s handling of that migration offers something of a playbook for Connecticut and the other states now grappling with those displaced by Maria. In short: the money will come, but not right away.

Thousands of Katrina evacuees relocated from Louisiana to Houston, Texas-area schools, including suburban Humble Independent School District (ISD). Before Katrina, Humble ISD had about 37,000 students, and then seemingly overnight received about 1,500 students from Louisiana – a 4% increase, said Guy Sconzo, former superintendent at Humble ISD and now executive director at Fast Growth Texas, a lobbying group for Texas school districts.

“We knew they were coming, but we had no idea how many and really only had a day’s notice that it was going to be happening,” Sconzo said.

Like the districts that accepted students who relocated post-Maria, Humble’s initial priority was to get each of the students into a classroom as soon as possible, which meant waiving traditional requirements during registration, as most of the children lacked health records, proof of residency and educational histories, Sconzo said.

“The last thing those children and families needed were more hurdles to jump in order to get children in school,” Sconzo said. “It took time, we had overcrowded classrooms, and we accepted and dealt with that until we could locate and bring portable classrooms onto the campuses and staff those additional classrooms.”

Like Irizarry and her peers, the Humble teachers also quickly realized that addressing the displaced students’ social and emotional needs was a necessity, Sconzo said.

The Texas Department of Education immediately made it clear that it would provide funding for the additional students – but that process took time, Sconzo said. “Those increases in enrollment were ultimately reimbursed by the state, but there’s no question it was a burden on the local budget,” Sconzo said. Humble ISD also ultimately received some reimbursement through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but that money took a whopping ten years to come through, he added.

Humble ISD’s response in 2005 mirrors the choices many school districts have made today – to do more with less, Sconzo said. The additional cost burdens were not without consequence. “There’s a lot of deferring of things like facilities maintenance. The choice you want to avoid, if humanly possible, is a situation where all that’s left to do is reduce staffing.”

Open arms policy

Hurricane Maria now looks to be the deadliest storm on record in US history, according to a Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 29 estimating at least 4,645 dead. That compares with at least 1,833 people who died from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

For those at stateside school districts, the most immediate challenge now is determining how many of the Puerto Rican students will stay for the 2018-2019 school year – even as the next round of hurricane gales begin to swirl and gain steam somewhere over the Atlantic.

“We are going through the budget process now. Just like we could not have foreseen these circumstances months ago, we don’t know what the future holds,” said Garcia, the Rochester spokesperson.

Indeed, although the Katrina students arrived practically overnight, the full response for Humble ISD was not an overnight process – it takes time to evaluate what’s truly necessary for the growth of student population, including how many will become permanent students, Sconzo said.

During Sconzo’s 16 years as superintendent, the already-fast growing Humble ISD opened 14 new schools, some of which were to accommodate the Katrina evacuees. Ultimately around 50%-55% of the relocated students stayed permanently in Humble, he estimated.

Nearly nine months after Hurricane Maria, after the June 1 start of the 2018 hurricane season, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has not entirely restored power, and there’s no end in sight to the steady stream of families making their way to New Haven, said Irizarry. “Four weeks ago I got a new student [from Puerto Rico] because his school has no power,” Irizarry said. “It’s been almost nine months [since the storm].”

Despite limited resources at some of the most popular relocation points, the classrooms and communities will continue to welcome evacuees with open arms.

“(Classrooms) have made room, basically,” Cintron said. “We take everybody, we accept everyone – you walk in the door, and we will enroll you and we work out the details. If a student living here needs to go to school, we need to enroll them.”

By Maria Amante and Maryellen Tighe

Javier Balmaceda and Pablo Domínguez contributed to this report.

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