Population loss, housing shortage impede rebuilding Florida Panhandle schools

Bay County Schools forced to close down 3 schools after Hurricane Michael

By Nadeen Yanes - Reporter

SPRINGFIELD, Fla. - Outside a damaged Springfield Elementary School is a small painted star hanging on the fence that reads, "Never Give Up." It's a message of reassurance Bay County School Board Chairman Steve Moss said anyone affected after Hurricane Michael needs to hear. 

"We are about seven or eight months, give or take, from the hurricane and, if you drive around the community, there are parts of it that look exactly as they did a day after," Moss said. 

The doors at Springfield Elementary School locked before Hurricane Michael and never re-opened again. Moss said it was one of three schools in the county that they had to make the tough decision to close. 

"There were some very tense board meetings," Moss said. "Students 4, 5, and 6 years old crying 'Please don't close my school. Please don't close my school' and we were like, 'Oh, my goodness." 

Moss said Bay District Schools lost 20% of it's student population and 235 employees have left, as well. Moss believes the lack of housing is the biggest issue the county is  dealing with after the storm in the Florida Panhandle.

According to school records, there are 4,875 actively enrolled homeless students. There were only 748 homeless students identified as homeless before the storm.

School officials also said the latest update showed that 73% of multifamily apartments east of Panama City Beach are damaged.

"The biggest issue we are dealing with by far is housing," Moss said. "Almost every apartment complex in Bay County was condemned or destroyed. All the section 8 government housing was condemned or destroyed. So, a lot of our employees and students simply left.

With them left state funding per student through the Florida Education Finance Program which provides funding based on several factors including the number of full-time equivalent students.

Records show the February's full-time equivalent student count was down approximately 4,000 students resulting in a $13 million loss for the 2018-2019 school year.

Moss said that brought school officials dangerously close to having to fire 600 employees working for the school district.

"What do you tell a teacher that doesn't have a roof that is still living in a hotel or with friends? Say 'Hey I know your house is destroyed but, by the way, you are fired also,' That's the last thing we want to do," Moss said.

Thankfully, Moss said, the Florida Legislature approved to get $12.4 million in funding for operations for Bay County Schools, which is keeping teachers and staff on payroll at least until next year.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave the school district $22 million for brick-and-mortar rebuilding. 

Congress, however, still has not passed the $19.1 billion Disaster Relief Bill.

"That's the most frustrating part," Moss said. "If you look at all the different hurricanes we've had over the last few decades, they have received federal funding within weeks." 

Moss believes many of the families who left will come back and their schools will reopen again. 

"'How do we get through this?' Moss asked. "Hopefully, as time goes and we make baby steps and say, 'Alright, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.'"

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