Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass met with local superintendents on Aug. 1 to ensure the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) addresses the real-time needs of districts most impacted by severe flooding that has devastated parts of eastern Kentucky.
Superintendents on the call expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support as they recapped the past few days, and provided updates from their communities during the virtual meeting.
Perry County Superintendent John Jett described the flooding as unlike anything he has seen in his lifetime, with several of the districts’ schools suffering damage to their structural integrity.
The Perry County School District has nine schools, with two schools severely damaged. Buckhorn School has damage to doors, windows and debris throughout the building. Jett said he believes that Robinson Elementary will need to be rebuilt due to the collapsing of 20% of the roof and an exterior wall. The struggle now is trying to decide where to house students for the upcoming school year, he said.
“We are not going to be able to consider starting school at our original start date because we have thousands of people out of power, we have thousands of people that don’t have running water,” Jett said. “Just that in and of itself is going to take time before we can even start the conversation with the community about where kids are going to go to school.”
The top priority for the district is meeting the needs of the families and students, some of whom lost their homes.
“I appreciate the efforts that everyone in surrounding counties are making,” he said. “It’s going to be an extremely long process. …The unfortunate part is that the communities that were hit were some of our most impoverished communities. The long-term effects on my community are going to be heartbreaking for years to come. We are going to need a lot of support for a long time.”
Letcher County’s Superintendent Denise Yonts shared that six of district’s 10 schools were affected by the flooding, with three of the schools in 8 feet of water. The central office also was damaged.
Letcher County also lost two staff members.
“Our community as a whole is devastated,” said Yonts.
The schools that are intact are now serving as donation centers, she said, and the district is committed to doing whatever it takes to get back in school so students and staff can have some normalcy.
Like Jett, Breathitt County Superintendent Phillip Watts said the flooding has been unlike anything his community has experienced.
“Unfortunately, we went through this in 2020. This round is way worse, nothing like last time,” he said. “We have some of the hardest-hit areas I’ve ever seen. … I’ve never seen any rain like that in my life.”
With homes destroyed, members of the community are camping out and sleeping in cars.
Jett said the district experienced extensive damage to its vocational school, bus garage, maintenance shop and several classrooms.
The biggest need in Breathitt County is portable showers and portable laundry services. Jett expressed appreciation to Wolfe County Schools, which helped Breathitt County with shelters after a few shelters were evacuated.
Breathitt School District only plans to push back the school start date by one week.
“Just hang in there everyone, we will get through this together,” said Watts.
Three schools were impacted in Knott County – the high school, the area technology center and an elementary school – said Superintendent Brent Hoover, although there has been no structural damage to the buildings. Knott County will not start school until they are able to assess damages to equipment.
Hoover said Knott County lost a 2nd-grade student, the oldest of four siblings.
He said he is thankful for the outpouring of support from not just Kentuckians, but also individuals from across the United States. Schools that were not heavily impacted are serving as donation centers.
“We have people cooking at four schools today, it’s just amazing,” he said.
Clay County, Floyd County, Jackson Independent, Owsley County, Hazard Independent
Clay County public schools Superintendent William Sexton said several staff members and students lost everything they had, but the district only experienced minor leaks. The most immediate needs are storage totes and non-perishable food items.
Similarly, Floyd County did not experience damage to its schools or transportation fleets, but several staff and student homes and vehicles were lost, said Superintendent Anna Shepherd.
Floyd County also plans to push back its school start date, but start schools as they can. In the meantime, the district is helping deliver meals to community members and those in surrounding impacted areas.
Hazard County is focused on contacting individual families, said Superintendent Sondra Combs. The only damage the district had was minimal, to the elementary schools.
The district plans to open school on Aug. 11, if road conditions allow.
Wayne Sizemore, superintendent of Jackson Independent Schools, said that 36 of the district’s families are displaced and seven staff members lost everything.
“Our schools are intact, but our families are not,” he said.
Sizemore said Leslie County teachers and staff donated food and other resources to their community.
He said he couldn’t say enough about the community and the surrounding counties, and the outpouring they have shown.
Gary Cornett, superintendent of Owsley County Schools, said Owsley County High School currently is serving as a rescue and recovery headquarters.
When speaking to the volunteers coming to Eastern Kentucky, Cornett said people are applauding “the resiliency of the people in Eastern Kentucky and how they are helping each other.”
Leslie County and Jenkins Independent
Leslie County also experienced no damage to schools, said Superintendent Brett Wilson, but members of the community lost their homes or have no access to water and electricity.
One of their elementary schools will be set up as a National Guard site, with 200 members on the way, and another one of its elementary schools set up as a shelter for food, water and laundry.
Jenkins Independent also will serve as a National Guard site and open its facilities for food and showers, said Superintendent Damien Johnson.
The district experienced mainly exterior damage, with a bit of flooding in its elementary school, but will have to push back the start of school due to impassable roads.
“It’s the long haul, it’s the people that have lost everything that are going to have needs that outweigh the immediate impact. We got stuff for people who have nowhere to take it to. We’ve got to take care of these people for a while,” he said.
Advice from Tornado-Impacted Districts
Superintendent from districts impacted by the tornados in Western Kentucky in December 2021 shared advice and support during the meeting.
“My heart goes out to all of your guys, little bit different situation, but I feel for you,” said Mayfield Independent Superintendent Joe Henderson.
Henderson shared that having someone assist the schools with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) procedures and having a system in place for distributing donations, such as a committee, will help in the days ahead.
Warren County Superintendent Rob Clayton suggested switching donation requests from items to monetary contributions, as impacted individuals may have nowhere to store items once pop-up shelters are closed.
“The long-term recovery piece will be a huge ask and that monetary donation will go a long way in that,” he said.
For individuals interested in donating money, Gov. Andy Beshear has established the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund to assist those impacted by floods and the severe weather that began on July 26. All donations to the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund are tax-deductible, and donors will receive a receipt for tax purposes.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to be important for you to get back in school, but the human element is the biggest piece,” Dawson Springs Superintendent Leonard Whalen said. “You’ve got so many people that are hurting in your community, try to make sure their immediate need is met.”
Operations and Logistics
KDE Associate Commissioner Robin Kinney stressed to the superintendents the importance of continuing to take care of staff, students and families.
“You are in a disaster relief capacity right now. You will slowly get back to wearing that sole superintendent cap in the future. When that happens, we will be here to assist you with all of the needs,” she said. “The resiliency you’ve already shown so far is commendable, but it will drain you. Please try to take care of yourselves and your families as you try to take care of everyone else in your charge.”
From a funding standpoint, Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) dollars will not be affected.
The SEEK funding program is a formula-driven allocation of state-provided funds to local school districts that covers, as part of the allocation, funding for transportation costs, low-income students and special needs students as reported by districts.
However, data collection from the 2022-2023 school year may affect funding for the 2023-2024 school year for impacted districts. Several districts discussed how their displaced families may look to send their students to nearby districts, or how damaged buildings may cause entire schools to be relocated, negatively impacting their attendance and hurting future funding. Kinney encouraged districts to reach out to KDE if attendance becomes a major issue.
Kinney said districts can take advantage of the alternate calendar option for the 2022-2023 school year and start after Aug. 29, working toward fulfillment of the 1,062 hours of instruction, not 170 days.
Kentucky Emergency Management
Stephanie Robey, assistant director of administration for Kentucky Emergency Management, said all the impacted districts will be eligible for FEMA assistance.
Robey encouraged schools to consider using FEMA to cover items that will not be eligible under insurance, such as sports fields.
Robey told the superintendents Kentucky Emergency Management is available to help districts work through the complex documentation and coordinating volunteers and donations.
“The state is going to help you in any way you find necessary,” she said.
Glass said he and leadership from KDE will continue to meet with affected districts again next week.