Hancock schools in battle with FEMA

The Hancock County School District has filed an arbitration appeal with FEMA over a decision to not reimburse the district for the replacement of 14 school buses lost during Hurricane Katrina.

School District Attorney Mark Alexander said Wednesday that the district lost a total of 24 buses during the storm.

Shortly afterwards, the district purchased 10 new buses with its insurance proceeds and money from FEMA.

When the district replaced the remaining 14 buses in 2006, it believed FEMA was going to cover the costs, but FEMA did not.

The cost to the school district was $512,000 after spending the remainder of its insurance proceeds, Alexander said.

MEMA Spokesman Greg Flynn said Thursday that FEMA did not fund the new buses because of the Stafford Act.

“It had to do with the age of the buses,” Flynn said. “FEMA is only allowed to replace what the entity had prior to the storm. The district bought new buses.”

Flynn said MEMA has received the arbitration appeal from the school district and it has 15 days to submit written comments on it.

“It has always been our contention to support the local entity,” Flynn said.

Once MEMA has completed its comments, the appeal will be sent to FEMA, which has 30 days to collect data and make its own comments.

FEMA and the school district will then be summoned to Washington D.C., where an arbitration panel will hear the case.

The FEMA arbitration panel was created last year as a way of solving disputes about reimbursements.

It was created to shorten the normal appeals process.

Earlier this year, the Bay-Waveland School District successfully won an arbitration of nearly $7 million in facility repairs.

FEMA had only offered the district about $176,000.

Hancock School District Superintendent Alan Dedeaux said Thursday that obtaining the reimbursements is critical because of the current financial situation of the state’s school districts.

School districts across Mississippi have had their funding cut by the state in the past year and more cuts are possible next year.

“Right now, every penny we can get is very important,” Dedeaux said.

Dedeaux, who was not superintendent in 2006, said he believed the district did everything it could under the circumstances.

He said the buses which were lost were mostly late ’90s models.

“They just could not find any buses that old,” Dedeaux said. “School buses are a necessity. They had to get kids back in school.”

Dedeaux said school buses run about $80,000 each and he is hopeful the arbitrator will rule favorably for the district.

“This will have a big effect on our budget,” he said. “A half-million dollars is a big deal.”

BY Dwayne Bremer

The Sea Coast Echo

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