SATSUMA – Livingston Parish schools are coming back, but it could take up to three more years before the last schools are back on their campuses, according to Rick Wentzel, superintendent of Livingston Parish public schools.
Meanwhile the efforts of teachers and school system personnel – and the support of the community – earned high praise in his address at the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce’s State of Education-Scholarship Breakfast on Wednesday, April 12.
“This speaks to the testament of people we got in this parish, the employees, the parents and the community,” he said.
A total of 21 high school students were recognized for receiving Chamber college scholarships before an audience of more than 120 elected officials, school officials and parents.
“When you talk about the state of education in Livingston Parish, great things are yet to come,” Wentzel said. “We’ve been knocked to our knees, but with everyone pulling together, going to take one step at a time.”
The process of getting federal help takes time, he said, but he is optimistic.
“We don’t know when we will get those schools back or how long it would take,” Wentzel said of Southside Junior High, Southside Elementary and Denham Springs Elementary.
Chad Bacas, chairman of the board of the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce, offered Wentzel some sympathy when he introduced him.
“If someone had told Rick six weeks into his role as superintendent the world would be turned upside down, he might not have taken the job,” Bacas said. “But he took it in stride.”
The superintendent, who stepped into the job last summer, presented numbers involving enrollment, buildings and money.
The school system has spent $4 million to $5 million in repairs, Wentzel said, while the cost of drying schools out and cleaning them has run $20.8 million.
Of 108 buses that got water, 61 were lost, he added. The school system is in the process of spending $2 million to replace those buses. It is leasing buses to fill the gap.
A total of 650 school system employees were affected by water, the superintendent said, and 38 have resigned.
“Many teachers flooded at home, and in their classrooms, so they had two disasters,” Wentzel said.
“We started the school year with this professional development room. We believe in professional development and we worked to establish this room,” Wentzel said.
But that opening was overshadowed by the opening of Wentzel’s slideshow -- the Great Flood of 2016.
“We got 33.1 inches of rain in one day, 4 trillion gallons of water between (August) 12th and 14th,” he said
“Floodwaters did not discriminate, it didn’t matter who you were and where you lived, many of our people lost everything they had worked their whole lives for,” Wentzel said.
In February 2016, the school system had 25,843 students. In August, the school year began with slightly more than 26,000.
In October, two months after the flood, the enrollment was 25,994 and by February it had dipped to 25,295.
Wentzel said today, they are down 578 students compared with February 2016.
Students are still returning, but that is subject to parents having housing, getting to their jobs and providing for their families, which has to be their first priority, he said.
Livingston Parish students are scattered around Louisiana and requests for academic records have come from as far away as New York, Michigan and Oregon.
A total of 18 school sites were affected by flooding, along with two central staff offices, Wentzel said.
Seven schools in Denham Springs are undergoing repairs, he said.
While several elementaries had to share campuses with other schools – and Denham Springs High platooned with Live Oak High -- Getting Denham Springs Junior High back in operation in a month solved a big problem, Wentzel said.
“We had nowhere to send the kids. Walker? The bridges were out,” he said.
“What’s significant about that school, I told our board members,” Wentzel continued, “Do not build anything unless it has a brick wall and cement floor. Then we can clean it quickly.”
“We don’t have a lot of money to spend,” Wentzel said. “We have a process and a plan, so we will do it stages.”
As an example, the superintendent cited Denham Springs Elementary, a hard-hit school on Range Avenue.
“We developed a plan to show what we got at Denham Springs Elementary and we were asked by FEMA to revise it. We did it two weeks ago.”
FEMA is now going through the school room by room “and will make a decision.”
“Southside Junior took a big hit,” he continued, with five to eight feet. “We are still in the process with FEMA. We delivered more information to them decide to fix it up or if it cheaper to rebuild. I don’t know yet.”
Wentzel offered praise to school system personnel throughout his address, many themselves victims of flooding.
“I wouldn’t trade my staff for anyone else,” Wentzel said. “At our first meeting, I had a sheet. I read off, ‘You’re in charge of this; you’re in charge of that.’
“The transportation superviser was in charge of donations,” he said, and Wentzel’s order was clear: “There were no blueprints on how to do it; just do it.”
“That’s why I like what it says at the bottom of their job description: ‘… any other duties assigned by school superintendent,’ ” he said.
“I’m not ashamed to say I live and represent Livingston Parish,” Wentzel said near the conclusion of his presentation.
“People were helping people. That’s why our motto right after was ‘LP Proud.’ ’’
Kevin Fambrough is a reporter at the Livingston Parish News. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @fambroughkevin.