The district lost 3,679 students due to Hurricane Michael and needs $12.4 million in funding this year and double that next year to make ends meet.

PANAMA CITY — Under a missing patch of ceiling panels in the Nelson Building board room, School Superintendent Bill Husfelt gave an emotional plea Thursday aimed toward Tallahassee representatives for Hurricane Michael relief funding.

Without approval of Senate Bill 520, which addresses this year’s funding, and a guarantee for assistance next year, Husfelt said the district will be forced to implement mass layoffs of about 600 employees.

The district is projecting a $37.2 million loss in operational cost revenue in addition to the $250 million cost to rebuild schools and repair damage incurred from the storm, with no plan for relief grants or loan programs from the state in sight. Now six months after the storm, Husfelt said the repeated failure of federal and state politicians to pass any major legislation for hurricane relief funds is “mind boggling.” He implored legislators for assistance.

“With a bleak hope of Congress doing more, I have become disheartened at the lack of progress from our state capitol,” Husfelt said. “I found it odd that our state’s leaders did not call a special session for the most catastrophic storm in most of our history.”

“I’m making one last plea. In my mind, we have one last hope and my plea is to Tallahassee,” he continued. “I have no doubt that the state is capable of helping us.”

Since the storm, the district has lost 3,679 students, resulting in a decrease of $12.4 million in funding to cover operational costs for the 2018/2019 school year. Next year, that number is expected to double.

 

The mass layoffs, if they come to pass, certainly will result in subsequent school closures in addition to the three schools mothballed last month.

Husfelt cited two hurricane funding statistics from previous years during the news conference. In 2016 after Hurricane Harvey, $22 billion of relief funding was appropriated within two weeks. In January 2013 following Hurricane Sandy, Congress appropriated $50 billion for relief signed by President Obama.

Thanks to three years of tax revenue plans for hurricane recovery assistance in addition to FEMA funding, areas affected by Hurricane Andrew received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding which were implemented swiftly by the state of Florida, Husfelt said.

“I could give you more examples but the point is, for Bay County, Gulf County, Jackson County, Holmes County, Calhoun County, all of us — no such bill is coming forth and it truly boggles my mind,” he said.

“We understand that this is our responsibility; we must make smart and sound decisions for real, full recovery to happen,” he continued. “But it seems so far that neither Tallahassee nor D.C. planned to help us climb out of the abyss we’re in right now.”

Since the hurricane, district officials have been forced to close three area schools for the upcoming year, consolidate the remaining schools, and implement a hiring and spending freeze.

Post-storm attrition also has decreased the district staff by 228 employees.

“We can’t help but feel that geography has dictated our destination, but because we are not in Central or South Florida, we are less important. That feeling is real. Just ask the people in our communities and counties that have been affected by Hurricane Michael,” Husfelt said.

Despite the disturbing consequences if the district does not receive funding, Husfelt said he is holding out hope for Tallahassee.

“This hurricane has affected us in every part of our lives and continues to affect us today. I don’t have a lot of hope that D.C. will all of the sudden realize how much we need them to work together for us; a true bipartisan effort,” Husfelt said. “But I do have hope that Tallahassee can still save the day.”