PORTLAND, Texas — Jessica Hernandez laments being called a traitor the day she played ball against the girls she grew up with.
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports so the day of the basketball scrimmage game, clad in a Gregory-Portland Wildcats uniform, the former Rockport-Fulton High School Lady Pirate kept her head in the game.
“I knew some kids weren’t going to understand why I stayed in G-P,” the sophomore said. “There was nothing I could do. I just had to focus and play my game.”
Several have asked, “Why don’t you just go back?”
The 16-year-old replies: “It’s not that simple.”
Jessica, her mother, sister and two dogs moved to Portland, a town of about 16,000, after Hurricane Harvey damaged the apartment complex where they lived beyond repair. The storm broke windows, ripped away siding and collapsed the apartment ceiling.
It’s unclear when that complex or others will be rebuilt, Aransas County Independent School District Superintendent Joseph Patek said.
A large number of public school families were renting or lived in government-subsidized housing before Harvey struck, Patek said. As of March, those families had nowhere to live in Aransas County, where the storm made landfall last August.
He suspects this may be why more than 500 students once in the district have yet to return to their home schools.
For Jessica and her mother, Belinda Peterson, not returning to Rockport means starting a new life and embracing the change.
For Patek, it means having to make tough decisions for the upcoming school year amid having to rebuild.
Patek is not alone.
Statewide, about 1.9 million students attend public school in the 60 counties listed in Gov. Greg Abbott’s disaster proclamation after Harvey. A majority of those students were directly impacted by the storm.
More than 10,000 students enrolled in a different school district in Texas because of Harvey and at least 34,000 became homeless, according to numbers reported to the Texas Education Agency in the fall.
But those totals don’t accurately reflect the student populations, according to guidance issued to Texas school districts in December. There was significant under reporting in the first round of data collection, which means the numbers are likely much higher.
All public school districts in disaster-declared Texas counties have reopened.
In the Coastal Bend, where the storm roared ashore as a Category 4, some families, like Jessica’s, have found new homes and schools elsewhere and don’t plan to return.
Six months after Harvey at least 747 students who enrolled in a different school district in South Texas hadn’t returned to their hometown schools. Some students also didn’t attend school while they waited for their home school districts to reopen, according to an analysis of data obtained by the Caller-Times through open records requests.
The analysis focused on 13 school districts that were either directly impacted by Harvey or in nearby South Texas counties.
The districts surveyed include Calallen ISD, Corpus Christi ISD, Flour Bluff ISD, Gregory-Portland ISD, Ingleside ISD, Robstown ISD, Sinton ISD, Tuloso-Midway ISD and West Oso ISD.
Those that were most severely impacted by the storm also were surveyed. They include Aransas County ISD, Aransas Pass ISD, Ingleside ISD and Port Aransas ISD.
For school districts directly in the path of Harvey — like Aransas County and Port Aransas ISDs — reopening schools was an uplifting milestone.
“When the school district reopened it gave everyone hope in our community that we were going to recover,” Port Aransas ISD Superintendent Sharon McKinney said. “Everyone really saw how our schools are the heart and soul of our community.”
But reopening has also proven to be only the beginning of a long road to recovery.
Aransas County ISD was hit with $55 million in damages, while Port Aransas ISD sustained $12.5 million in damages.
To compound matters, dips in enrollment and property values, two main factors that determine school districts’ funding, leave these districts with an uncertain financial future.
Patek said as of March, his district was still short about 540 students.
“We have some folks that are gone and they’re not coming back … That’s going to affect our state funding for next year,” Patek said
Enrollment was at 3,285 before Harvey. The district also employed 248 teachers before Harvey.
“With much lower enrollment, like that, I’m going to need to reduce staff,” Patek said, adding the first move will be to not to fill vacancies after this year’s resignations and retirements.
A lack of affordable housing to welcome back low-wage and working-class families seems to be the biggest impediment for Aransas County ISD families, Patek said.
“We’d like to get our students back . but that’s only going to be able to be taken care of by homes and apartments being built, or rebuilt,” Patek said. “As the housing becomes available more people will move back.”
Patek’s 540 displaced students are spread out among several Coastal Bend districts but the most are in Corpus Christi ISD, the area’s largest district. About 38,000 students total are enrolled there.
As of February, 148 former Aransas County ISD students were still enrolled in Corpus Christi ISD schools. The second highest number — 69 — were enrolled in Gregory-Portland ISD.
Nearly all residences in Port Aransas, a coastal tourist-driven town, were severely damaged by the storm, McKinney said.
As of March, quite a few were still unlivable or unfinished, but some families have slowly been trickling back in.
“I’ve got families living in homes that don’t have flooring, some don’t have Sheetrock in places,” McKinney said.
Unlike Aransas County ISD, Port Aransas has regained more than 91 percent of students enrolled before the storm.
According to data provided by the district, 520 students were enrolled in Port Aransas ISD schools before Harvey. As of April, enrollment was at 482.
McKinney said a bus picked up students at the end of the island road, or State Highway 361, to help out-of-district transfers before Harvey. The route allowed for some students living elsewhere because of Harvey to re-enroll in Port Aransas schools despite not living within district boundaries.
Several efforts like that have gone into bringing families back.
The district reopened about two months after Harvey struck the Texas coast on Aug. 25. Most classes, if not all, took place in portable buildings until Port Aransas High School and Olsen Elementary School were deemed safe and reopened in January.
Homes for Displaced Marlins also launched shortly after Harvey. The effort raised funds to buy mobile homes for families specifically so children could return to school.
About 20 children returned to school the day the district reopened because of the RV donations.
The district may have a harder time reeling in teachers, though, McKinney said.
Plans to build affordable housing for staff via a 2017 bond were derailed, she said.
Before Harvey, a portion of a $6 million bond approved by residents was going to build homes teachers could afford. A Port Aransas teacher’s salary is $51,873 on average. New staff typically come in late July or August, which is the height of tourist season, so it complicates cost and availability for educators looking for work, she said.
“We were going to work on that last fall,” McKinney said. “Obviously that got derailed by the storm.”
Superintendents who oversee school districts that were impacted by Harvey are putting their faith in legislators to cut them a break.
Inevitable consequences of the storm, like drops in property values, should be accounted for this upcoming legislative session, Patek said.
In Aransas County, property values are down about $750 million because of the storm, Patek said. The dip will equate to $4.3 million worth of lost tax revenue for the 2018-19 school year.
Meanwhile, Port Aransas, which is in Nueces County, has seen a $300 million drop in property values post-Harvey, Appraisal District Chief Appraiser Ramiro “Ronnie” Canales said.
“It may be more after reappraisal notices go out,” Canales said in March.
Patek said he’s hopeful about potential relief, but won’t know if they will be assisted until next year after the Texas Legislature begins its session.
That’s about halfway into the 2018-19 school year, he said. Budgets must be ready and passed by Aug. 31, Patek said.
“So we have to go on the good faith that the Legislature is going to take care of us,” he said.
This story was produced in partnership with the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Information from: Corpus Christi Caller-Times, http://www.caller.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times