DENHAM SPRINGS – Livingston Parish Schools Superintendent Rick Wentzel stood before a group of parish businessmen on the day that schools began the 2017-18 school year.
And his message was simple: The school system was only 250 students short of the 26,000 it had in 2016 before the Great Flood of 2016, and the flooding has not stopped the influx of new students.
Wentzel’s observation came during his State of the Parish address on Wednesday, Aug. 9, at Forrest Grove Plantation at the event sponsored by the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce.
It is “362 days after and we’ve said we’re coming back stronger,” he said last week. “Our population has grown and we are coming back, I’ve been telling people.”
He recounted parents calling to say they want to come back, but, “They don’t live close enough. They have to stay with relatives.”
“I tell them, ‘Don’t apologize. Live with it, work with it and we will take care of your babies when you get back,’ ” he said.
“Aug. 12, 2016 -- we will never forget,” Wentzel said. “Over 500 of my employees lost their homes. Teachers lost their classrooms, materials they saved over 30 years. Many students lost their homes.
“Let me apologize ahead of time, I’m long-winded and my wife says shortsighted,” he added.
Wentzel noted his wedding anniversary is at end of this month.
“How did she stay with me this long? I spent 11 months in a 24-foot travel trailer in my front yard with a dog. I think that dog stayed in the trailer with her more than I did.”
“I heard a comment I thrived on and it inspired me. ‘How are you going to handle this? Tomorrow will be better than today and the next day will be better. We will do better because that’s what we do.’
“This inspired me, so I say thank you, sheriff,” Wentzel said, addressing Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard, another speaker at the event. Also speaking were Parish President Layton Ricks and Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry.
“The leadership in this parish is wonderful. The people in this parish are excellent, that’s what brings people here,” Wentzel said.
The superintendent quickly ran down the enrollment numbers before and after the flood and as the 2016-17 school year progressed.
In August 2016, before the flood, Livingston Parish schools opened and enrollment “creeped over 26,000,” Wentzel said.
In October, after the flood, enrollment stood at 25,418, a loss of 600 students.
“When you look at the MFP,” the state funding formula based on enrollment, “you go, ‘Oh my gosh,’ ’’ Wentzel said.
By February, enrollment was 25,295, and by the end of the 2016-17 school year, the system was down 500 students and Wentzel was predicting more students would be back.
The day before schools opened, the school system had 25,750 students registered, Wentzel said.
People are familiar with how Denham Springs High and Denham Springs Junior were damaged, Wentzel said, as he showed slides of flood-hit schools,
But a total 18 school sites were damaged.
Repairs have been completed on three schools, while repairs continue on five Denham Springs schools, he said.
Three schools – Denham Springs Elementary, Southside Elementary and Southside Junior High – are still on temporary campuses as the school system awaits a decision from FEMA on whether to rebuild or replace.
“FEMA, I don’t know. We’re pushing it; we're fighting it,” Wentzel said. “Rebuild or refurbish. We need a direction. If you take a step in the wrong direction, you lose the money you put into it.”
The superintendent called the temporary campuses “three beautiful sites.”
Southside Elementary and Southside Junior High are housed behind Juban Parc Elementary and Juban Parc Junior High, respectively, while Denham Springs Elementary is on the grounds of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.
“We really want to thank Immaculate Conception,” he added. “The teachers are excited. They love their classrooms.”
What the Great Flood of 2016 ultimately will cost the school system is not totaled yet.
“The total estimated cost -- please know this is estimated by the project manager we hired -- is $122 million,” he said.
Of that, $34 million won’t be reimbursed by FEMA, he said, “I’ve heard that may be reduced to a 30-ish figure.
“I’m sorry, that is still tough. We’re on a shoestring budget, but our children deserve nothing less,” Wentzel said. “We will continue to do what we have to for them.
“Some schools are better than prior to the flood. Our kids deserve nothing else.”
Wentzel recounted one aspect of the flood recovery.
Flooring repair work at eight schools took place this summer so it would not interrupt the school year, he said, with 131,000 square feet of tile put down.
“Here’s the kicker: Of the eight schools, only three are completed,” Wentzel said.
Another 205,000 square feet of tile needs to be put down, he added, “And that’s just the floor, not painting and millwork we have to do.”
Wentzel ’s slide show included photos of new houses built in new developments in the past three weeks.
“Kids enrolling are returnees and new development kids,” he said. “People still want to come here.”
That is why the school superintendent brought up a millage renewal on the Oct. 14 ballot.
He stressed the 7.18-mill property tax age “has been on the books since 1979.”
“It is critical for our parish. It provides $3 million for our general budget, for salaries, supplies and things we have to have to operate and stay an A system.
“We need the millage to provide for our students and our students deserve that,” he said.
Kevin Fambrough is a reporter at the Livingston Parish News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @fambroughkevin.