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Hurricane-Damaged Schools Have New Way to Rebuild

The new law empowers school boards to issue bonds to make repairs after a natural disaster without having to follow the usual procedures that require approval from voters in the school district.

John Massaro, Principal of Cresskill Middle/High School, stands in a hallway outside the school's gutted theater. Remediation has started at the school which saw as much as 3 feet of water inside. Cresskill, N.J. Sept. 17, 2021
Andre Malok/TNS
(TNS) - New Jersey schools damaged in a natural disaster won’t have to wait as long to get emergency funds to rebuild under legislation signed by Gov. Phil Murphy last month.

The new law empowers school boards to issue bonds to make repairs after a natural disaster without having to follow the usual procedures that require approval from voters in the school district.

The bill, S1892, was approved more than two years after Hurricane Ida hit the state and caused significant damage to communities and their school systems. The Sept. 1, 2021, storm forced 21 schools in 18 districts to close on or after the day they were supposed to start the new school year, according to data provided by the state Department of Education.

Four of those schools were closed for at least four months, officials said.

The total cost for all school repair projects related to Hurricane Ida was approximately $42 million, according to the latest estimate from the state Office of Emergency Management.

Some school districts, including the Cresskill Public Schools in Bergen County, ran into financial problems when they tried to repair and rebuild after the storm.

Hurricane Ida caused damage in Cresskill that would cost the equivalent of more than half of the small district’s yearly operating budget to repair, officials said. 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.

The damage in Cresskill was estimated to cost more than $21 million to repair, but the district’s flood insurance capped out at just $2 million, former superintendent Michael Burke said previously. FEMA is expected to reimburse up to 75 percent of the money, but the agency operates on a reimbursement basis, meaning 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.

For more than five months, Cresskill Middle/High School went back to learning remotely, attending school in-person just once a week at a local parochial institution. Students eventually returned to classes in-person on a regular basis, but school was held at a local Presbyterian church.

Following the approval of a $21.6 million bond in January 2022, the school district was able to put in purchasing orders for the big budget items needed to rebuild its school.

School officials said the district wanted to order the supplies earlier, but its hands were tied by financial limitations and red tape. Cresskill’s delayed rebuilding process exposed flaws in the process in New Jersey for schools seeking emergency funding in extreme circumstances, local officials said.

“We never want to see other schools have to go through what we did in Cresskill,” said Cresskill Superintendent Peter Hughes and Cresskill Board of Education in a joint statement. “This legislation helps ensure that schools can quickly get access to the funds they need to make repairs and get kids back into in-person instruction, saving months from the process of reconstruction.”

The new legislation “would have made a significant difference in our ability to start making repairs more quickly and more efficiently — getting the kids back into school faster,” the statement said.

Under the FEMA reimbursement 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 Joseph 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.

In the two years since Hurricane Ida, 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.

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